Make it a Double: PADDINGTON 2 & THE REWRITE

The first edition of Make it a Double for the new year explores this 2017 Hugh Grant gem.

That mischevious bear is back on U.S. screens in Paddington 2. After the success of the first film to feature the world’s most beloved classic storybook character, Paddington 2 has been already been happily devoured by both critics and audiences abroad, who have found the first sequel just as entertaining as the bear’s first movie outing.

Paddington 2 has been getting attention for the inclusion of Hugh Grant, who takes on a villainous supporting role in a delightfully animated turn, which has earned him lots of praise as well as a Bafta nomination. The actor’s appearance in Paddington 2 is in keeping with Grant’s preference of recent years to take on supporting roles rather than leading ones. It’s decision that has resulted in some of Grant’s best work as evidenced by stellar performances in Cloud Atlas, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Florence Foster Jenkins.

Yet one can’t count out Grant’s power as a leading man and how, given the right material, he can make a film truly soar the way he did in 2014’s The Rewrite.

In The Rewrite, Oscar-winning screenwriter Keith Michaels (Grant) finds his career at a standstill. Studios aren’t interested in his latest projects and he’s desperate to find work fast. When his agent (Caroline Aaron) suggests he take on a job teaching screenwriting at a college on the East coast, he reluctantly agrees. While there, he angers the department chair (Alison Janney), befriends a fellow professor (J.K. Simmons) and finds himself falling for an older student named Holly (Marisa Tomei) as he begins to re-evaluate his life.

As a comedy, The Rewrite doesn’t overstay its welcome and breezes by with such great ease thanks to writer/director Marc Lawrence’s seamless blending of solid laughs are genuine pathos. If it wasn’t obvious enough by its title, a lot about The Rewrite has to do with the act of reflection and the idea of starting over. When Keith first arrives on campus, he doesn’t know where he is and instantly reacts against his environment, alienating virtually everyone he comes into contact with. He reluctantly accepts the place and the job while still fighting against it with sarcasm and a general apathy as his weapons of choice. The problem Keith faces is the frightening thought that he might not be much more than “Paradise Misplaced,” the film which brought him acclaim so early in his career. Leaving Hollywood and the safety of that world is a surefire way to find out; but it’s a proposition which undoubtedly shakes him. For Keith, the movie he wrote at the start of his career has defined him professionally beyond being just his calling card. Much in the way a fan complements an actor for that specific role that made them famous rather than their body of work, Keith loses a bit of his individuality when he is complimented. This makes his frustration all the more powerful when he is unable to repeat his initial success.The moment when Keith is watching vintage footage of himself accept an award for his early work is sad, but never pathetic. It’s a moment of realization that treats its subject with gentleness and sincerity.

The Rewrite is the fourth collaboration between Grant and Lawrence following 2002’s Two Weeks’ Notice, 2007’s Music and Lyrics and 2009’s Did You Hear About the Morgans? Accidental or not, Keith cannot help but come off as containing elements of all the male characters in those films. He’s got George Wade’s untouchable ego, Alex Fletcher’s cluelessness about the passage of time and Paul Morgan’s yearning for a second chance. It’s a testament to both actor and writer/director that with The Rewrite, they just don’t make Keith a combination of such traits, but instead take the time really explore him. They do this best when they look at Keith as someone trapped in a cycle which involves sleeping with younger girls and making pitch after pitch to uninterested studio executives. Watching as Keith awkwardly tries to relate and engage with people through sarcastic quips is both uncomfortable and funny. He knows he’s bad off the page in real life, which is why he tries to leave most social situations as quickly as possible. It’s hard not to note some parallels between Keith and the actor playing him. The way the character stops trying to sell screenplays and goes off to teach is similar to Grant foregoing leading roles in favor of supporting ones. I’m sure the actor can jump back into the leading man mode whenever he wanted to and his preference to let the likes of an animated bear and Meryl Streep take center stage is worth it so long as he gets to do interesting work, which he does. The moment in The Rewrite when Keith helps a promising student sell his screenplay to a studio makes him human and free from total cliche. In a similar way, Grant letting someone else bask in the main spotlight as he enjoys the glow from the side, while also venturing into fresh territory as an actor, flings The Rewrite straight into postmodern territory.

For reasons other than the ones I’ve mentioned above, Grant is perfectly cast as Keith. He doesn’t try to justify his character’s actions, but rather takes great pains to make sure the audience knows what’s led him to his current state. Some of the actor’s best moments come when Keith is seen really looking at the person he’s become, resulting in a performances that’s right up there with Grant’s excellent turn in About a Boy. There’s some really great banter between him and Tomei, so much so that their moments alone border on transcendent. Both actors have very different acting styles. While Grant is wonderfully acerbic and Tomei endlessly effervescent, the pair form a chemistry that’s all but impossible to embrace. Tomei’s character may come off as underwritten, but the actress’s performance says so much about Holly’s journey in the way she plays her as a woman beaming with spirit who has overcome a difficult past and is making the most out of the life in front of her. As for Simmons and Janney, the two skilled actors don’t get much to do with their characters until near the end, but they eventually make their mark on the film, in particular the latter in a hilarious extended scene.

Although promoted well-enough, The Rewrite didn’t seem to get much of a chance at the domestic box office despite some decent reviews. The film was given a minimal release before being shuffled off to VOD. Overseas, the film managed a slightly better showing and was given more of a chance to find its audience. Yet when all was said and done, The Rewrite was labeled a bomb before being altogether forgotten.

While it would be easy to look at The Rewrite as a romantic comedy, the truth is it’s really more of comedy with romance in it. In fact the romance aspect is so subtle, and happens rather organically, that it ends up as a side note of sorts. The reason for this is undoubtedly because it isn’t the point of the film. It would be so easy to knock an effort such as The Rewrite in theory, but it wisely never gives its critics a reason to. The film takes the cliches of the genre it belongs to and tosses them aside, focusing instead on the attributes of such a movie and reveling in them. Lawrence’s film makes a comment on the state of the movie industry (no doubt inspired by real-life experiences), but really shines as a tribute to screenwriters and that which inspires them. While Adaptation tapped into the neuroses of the screenwriter, The Rewrite imparts a fondness and an appreciation for the art of screenwriting and the inspiration required for it. Ultimately its the film’s idea of one’s own third act and how it remains unwritten, which gives the film a rare and truthful soul.

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