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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 26, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Rewrite, Shopping Cart Anchors

My wife and I talked over the movies that were being touted on the talk shows, and we agreed that the only two that showed any promise of being worth watching were Kingsman (which I already reviewed) and The Rewrite, starring Hugh Grant.

Hugh Grant's name on a movie doesn't guarantee quality, of course. He was in one of the best movies ever made -- Sense and Sensibility -- and he has never failed to be charming, especially in About a Boy and Love Actually, but Notting Hill was a real disappointment and Cloud Atlas humiliated everybody who was in it.

And The Rewrite, as the title suggests, is about a writer -- which is usually the kiss of death for a movie or a book, as far as I'm concerned. No, I'm not anti-writer, I'm just bored with or annoyed by what most writers choose to say about writers.

"Talent" does not make a writer special; a writer who's a selfish jerk is a selfish jerk -- not one iota of that is taken away by the fact that he is also a writer.

Genius excuses nothing; and besides, real genius is rarely where people say it is, especially when the genius is saying it about himself.

The more realistic a story about a writer, the more boring it will be, because writing is tedious enough to do, but excruciating to watch.

And the most painful thing in stories about "genius" writers is that when they actually read aloud something the "genius" has written, it's usually as embarrassingly bad as the "genius" art created by Jack Dawson in Titanic. (Sad as the death of everybody on the Titanic was, the art world lost nothing when Jack Dawson froze to death in the north Atlantic.)

What made me want to see The Rewrite, then, was not the subject matter, and not just the fact that Hugh Grant was in it.

Partly it was because of the inept way that Jimmy Fallon handled his interview with Grant. Fallon began his comedy career doing imitations, and imitations, like caricatures, work by exaggerating one feature of the subject to the point of absurdity.

What Fallon neglected to realize is that while people can rarely do much about the features that caricaturists exaggerate (Jay Leno's chin, Barack Obama's ears), the targets of imitators can change the behavioral quirks that are exaggerated.

When Fallon sat down with Hugh Grant, he immediately started trying to do Grant's accent (Fallon is adequate at many things, but accents are not on that list) and his trademark stammer.

But that stammer, while it worked splendidly in some of Grant's early films, is not an attribute of the man himself. And Grant, keenly aware that the stammer was the thing that imitators ridiculed most, long since dropped it from his repertoire of acting techniques, except on the rare occasions where it's absolutely required.

So Grant received Fallon's "imitation" rather coldly. I don't stammer like that anymore, he pointed out. I haven't for fifteen years. And with that, Fallon really had nowhere to go.

Fallon is still new at this talk show stuff. Just as it will take a while for Seth Meyers to realize that his desk bits with Fred Armisen do not work, never have worked, and never will work, it will take time for Jimmy Fallon to realize that even though he thinks of his imitations as tributes, the target of the imitation usually perceives it as mockery and ridicule.

In other words, to do an imitation of your guest is not hospitable -- it's openly rude. Most are polite enough to bear it, but Hugh Grant can be forgiven for speaking up (in a civil way) and essentially asking Jimmy Fallon to stop.

My sympathy was entirely with Grant, of course. The rest of the interview went well enough, though from that moment on it was clear that Grant, not Fallon, was the grownup in the room.

So Grant has definitely put the stammer behind him, I thought, and that made me all the more eager to see what he was doing now. I wanted to see The Rewrite.

Besides, it also has Marisa Tomei, Allison Janney, and J.K. Simmons, who are among my favorite character actors.

The trouble was that on that Friday night, as we sought out a movie to watch, my wife and I learned that while Kingsman was playing in several theaters in Greensboro, the nearest theater showing The Rewrite was in New Jersey.

That seemed like an excessively long trip to see a movie, so we went to Kingsman and enjoyed it immensely.

Meanwhile, though, my wife learned that even though The Rewrite was on its initial theatrical run, it was already available for streaming or download from Amazon.com. These days many films don't follow the old pattern of theatrical, then airplane, then premium cable, then broadcast, then DVD. But it's rare indeed for a film to be available online while it's still in theaters.

What that meant, however, was that my wife and I were able to settle down to watch a first-run movie starring some of our favorite actors in the comfort of our own home theater, because we could use TiVo to access Amazon.com and put the film up on the wall instead of a computer screen.

So I must endorse the way Amazon (and TiVo) are handling access to online movies. Best of all, while watching we could eat snacks of far higher quality than any theater sells, sit in much more comfortable chairs, and pause the movie whenever one of us wanted to say or ask something.

And since we paid extra to buy it instead of "renting" it, it won't disappear from our menu after a few days (or at least it better not), and we can watch it again.

The Rewrite is definitely worth watching more than once. It's a comedy, but it's a grownup comedy. Time after time I saw setups for gross or offensive or sexual humor -- and the writer/director (Marc Lawrence) never took the low road.

The story is simple enough: Oscar-winning screenwriter Keith Michaels has not had a hit since his Oscar winning script in 1998. Now he's broke and divorced, and his miraculously loyal agent (Caroline Aaron) finds him a gig -- as a visiting instructor at a college in Binghamton, New York, filling in for the original teacher, who died just before the semester began.

Michaels has no interest in teaching -- he doesn't think writing can be taught. (Note: Bad writing can always be taught, and most screenwriting courses do so very effectively. Good writing is so hard to identify, and its practitioners are usually so unaware of what they did right, that it is rarely taught, though there is no reason why it can't be, provided the teacher knows what it is.)

Michaels shows up and takes his dinner in a local college hangout, and because he looks so much like a movie star, some of the co-eds there speak to him, and one of them (Karen, played by Bella Heathcote) is a would-be writer dying to get into his class. She shows her sincerity by sleeping with him.

An annoying neighbor, played by Mr. Annoying himself, Chris Elliott (in his best performance ever), peers in the bedroom window too early in the morning, and he eventually plays a role in helping Michaels learn that the university has a policy against sleeping with students, for reasons made clear by what happens between Karen and Keith Michaels.

Michaels is supposed to read seventy screenplay openings and choose the ten students he will admit to his class. Reading one screenplay is hard, I can affirm, because if it's easy to read, it's almost certainly a bad script to film. Few people in Hollywood know how to read a screenplay and understand what the film would be, which is why executives usually rely on underlings to do their reading for them.

Michaels handles the screenplay overload even more simply. He looks up each applicant on the student directory, and picks eight good-looking girls, rejecting every other girl and accepting only two guys -- the geekiest.

However, before class begins, a middle-aged woman, played with verve and completely honesty by the ever-luminous Marisa Tomei, wangles her way into his class, even though she has a child, is not particularly attracted to him, and actually wants to learn how to write -- a combination that does not interest him at all.

On the first day of class, Grant announces that since a screenplay is 120 pages, if they write at the rate of three pages a day, they should be finished with their first draft in a month. Therefore he dismisses class for thirty days.

The students are flabbergasted, since if they knew how to write a screenplay at all they wouldn't have needed the class. And soon enough it becomes clear to Grant that even though he believes writing can't be taught, he must show up at every class session and at least attempt to teach it.

Marisa Tomei's questions become the backbone of his teaching, and predictably enough he realizes that he really does know something about writing and his students can learn from what he says.

The great danger in this is that The Rewrite was written by, unsurprisingly, a screenwriter, and most Hollywood screenwriters are True Believers in the whole three-act-structure ticking-clock pump-up-the-jeopardy school of screenwriting, which is most of the reason why most Hollywood movies are so execrably bad. Sure enough, some of what Keith Michaels teaches refers to the ideas and formulas of bad screenwriting, but mostly he talks to them about ...

About story and character. About what actually happens in the screenplay, quite apart from formulas and rules. About why the characters do the things they do.

The result is that The Rewrite gives us glimpses of a not-useless writing class (a very rare thing). And The Rewrite itself pays attention to the principles Michaels teaches to the screenwriters in his class.

It's a comedy, and Keith Michaels's method of class selection sets us up for some very funny bad writers among the students -- the Star Wars geek who keeps turning in rewrites of Star Wars, the girl who is trying to write a romantic comedy and has no idea how to identify scenes and situations that aren't appallingly dull.

These bad writing students are absolutely authentic. Marc Lawrence didn't have to exaggerate very much at all in order to make them funny. In fact, he was very kind to them, and had Keith Michaels treat them kindly, too.

Then there's Karen, the girl who slept with Keith Michaels before class began. When Michaels sees that she has talent but that her screenplay has a deep, gaping hole in it, Karen is outraged -- because the hole comes exactly where there is a deep hole in her own life. So Karen's fury leads her to out him for having an affair with her.

J.K. Simmons, as head of the English department, informs Michaels that since he's actually guilty of a gross ethical infraction, and since he deeply offended the professor who runs the ethics committee (Allison Janney), he will certainly be fired. The best solution is for him to resign and slip quietly away.

And it seems that's what he's going to do. But then there wouldn't be much of a movie, would there?

The Rewrite doesn't depend on cheap shots, gross jokes, or unbelievable behavior. In fact, it may be the best college comedy (as opposed to farce) ever made, and yes, I'm including The Paper Chase in that. (If you want the best college farce, my money is not on Animal House but rather on Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School.)

If Marc Lawrence were a writer of today's typical comedies, he would have celebrated the fact that Keith Michaels is the kind of teacher who sleeps with his students.

Instead, he shows Michaels growing out of that kind of selfishness and, when one of his students turns out to be an excellent writer, Michaels does not steal the script to advance his own career, he literally steps out of the way as he gets the kid connected with the producers who can help him get the movie made.

This is what I believe good comedy ought to be -- truthful and realistic and only then funny. Most "comedies" today will do anything for a laugh, throwing believability out the window at every opportunity.

This story presented so many opportunities to move in that direction -- and pursues none of them. Yet I think that makes it all the more funny, because it's honest, and the movie knows right from wrong, and so we find ourselves liking and caring about everybody in it -- even the head of the ethics committee, who in most comedies would have been, like Mr. Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the target of cruel vengeance.

Because The Rewrite was released in Britain in 2014, and is receiving a so-far narrow release in the U.S., I have no idea whether it is eligible for awards. Like many of my favorite movies, it will probably fly under the radar.

But you and I have far more discerning taste than the hoi polloi, and therefore the movie's lack of huge box-office earnings and awards hype won't block us from enjoying its excellence. Especially because you can buy it and download it for less than the cost of two theater tickets -- not to mention not having to drive to New Jersey.

Hugh Grant and Marisa Tomei give performances that are among their best, and the whole cast is wonderful. I must single out Steven Kaplan as the bright young screenwriter who actually sells his script, and Andrew Keenan-Bolger as the Star Wars-loving geek who nearly dies trying to get into a fraternity. Either of them could have relied on Revenge of the Nerds-style shtick, but instead they remain wonderfully real.

One of the best things about this movie, though, is the utterly realistic way it deals with Hollywood. The agent pushes the envelope, I'm afraid -- few agents are this loyal to their clients, though some are. The place where you can have a glimpse of how Hollywood actually works is when a couple of producers are wining and dining Steven Kaplan's character.

I've been in his place at the table: He has something to sell that the other people want to buy. So they are utterly focused on him, adulatory in their praise, and completely full of bull as they make unkeepable promises to him.

Keith Michaels could have taken him aside and told him the truth: Trust nobody, and remember that if it isn't in the contract, the promise will not be kept.

Instead, he decides to let the kid learn distrust and cynicism on his own. He knows their agent will protect him from outright theft, and so why take away the pleasure of those early, heady days? So Michaels sets aside the chance to hitch his career to a younger talent and lets the kid go ahead on his own. That moment is Michaels's redemption from his selfishness early in the film, and his repayment is the text he receives on his phone right at the end.

In writing his script, Marc Lawrence didn't hate anybody -- not even the Hollywood weasels. Instead, Lawrence allowed characters to become their best selves. The stupid get smarter; the mean get nicer; the proud learn humility; and the selfish learn generosity. It's a movie about good people learning to do better.

If you thought the Hangover movies were great comedy, don't waste your money on The Rewrite. It's for grownups.

*

When my Achilles tendon started acting up and I no longer ran through our neighborhood, it must have started a real problem for the Harris Teeter grocery store at Elm and Pisgah Church. That's because I used to scoop up HT shopping carts that people had pushed home, presumably full of groceries.

If those people had all been responsible citizens, they would have brought their shopping cart back the next time they went shopping. But they didn't. Instead, most of those carts were left around in the neighborhoods, to be played with -- and vandalized -- by the neighborhood kids.

At my peak effectiveness, I would bring in as many as six shopping carts a day -- any more than that and you can't really steer the train of carts from the rear.

But when I stopped bringing in their carts, it must have greatly increased their need to send around a truck and a crew to pick up the missing carts. And since the carts really aren't designed for long-range travel on asphalt and over rough terrain, they probably wore out much faster and had to be replaced at a high rate.

My bringing carts back to the store did not decrease the wear and tear on the carts. So even when they had my help bringing them back, the carts that migrated a mile or more from the store suffered damage at a much higher rate.

Now we have Harris Teeter's solution: wheels that lock when you take a cart beyond the parking lot.

If you only take the cart from the store to a parking place in the lot directly in front of the store, you might not even realize that the wheels lock up. (It's only the right-rear wheel that has the locking device.)

But since I also stop at the dry cleaner in the same shopping center, I often park in that lot. My habit was to pick up a cart that someone had left in that area and bring it into the store; that way if I didn't bring my cart all the way back to the store, at least I left them no worse off than I found them.

However, Harris Teeter has decided that people who park anywhere west of the store rather than north of it can go hang themselves, for all they care. Twenty steps from the door of the store, when you're still in front of Harris Teeter's own building, your cart wheel jams up.

Apparently they hate the customers who dare to park in the perfectly legitimate parking spaces to the west of the store. There are no signs that say, "You can't bring carts out to this parking lot." You just find it out when your cart stops moving.

That's not nice. It's also not necessary. They could have established their perimeter to include that parking lot. Yes, there is no shopping cart corral in that area, but so what? A lot of people in the lot that has corrals still leave the carts stranded on medians or blocking parking places. They have to send employees out to pick up the dogies -- er, I mean, strays -- from the north lot. Why not a trip to the west that is no farther?

Oh, well. They never check with me when they make these decisions. Somebody in management decided to cause gross inconvenience to customers who don't park in the "true" parking places -- even though there is no sign to indicate that Harris Teeter customers are not allowed to park anywhere but due north of the store.

Not that it matters when I'm just running a quick errand and have only a couple of lightweight shopping bags with me. It's easy enough to leave the cart and carry the bags the rest of the way to my car.

But a parent with a child in the shopping cart, who has been given no warning, may find herself with a week's worth of groceries and a non-ambulatory child in a cart that now acts as if somebody had tossed an anchor overboard.

So ... what does she do? Obviously, she must abandon her groceries long enough to take her child to the car, strap him into the car seat, and then ...

Oh, wait. Isn't it illegal and, legal or not, foolish to leave a child in a closed car? So what do you do, leave the car doors open while you hike back to where you left the groceries?

And do you start the car so the air conditioning or heat will run? How safe is it to leave your keys and your baby in the car while you make the hike?

And what happens to your frozen foods during the six trips you have to take?

Oh, yes. You certainly learn never to park in the lot to the west of Harris Teeter.

But you may also learn that you would rather not shop at Harris Teeter at all, after they forced you, without warning, to go through all these extra trips and put your baby in danger in order to get everything you paid for out to your car.

The evil parking lots that you're punished for using are part of the same shopping center. But Harris Teeter has excommunicated the customers who park there -- without warning them.

There's a warning on the cart that tells you not to take the carts out of the parking lot. But since the lot to the west of the store is obviously part of the same shopping center, the sign is not helpful at all.

And it would have been so simple for them to establish a larger perimeter. They could have allowed their customers to shop at the other stores in the center, and take their carts with them to their cars. But they decided that they didn't care how much inconvenience they caused.

I can't help but wonder whether this was a chain-wide decision. Does every Harris Teeter now have carts that lock their wheels when you're still well within the parking lots associated with the shopping center? Does the Harris Teeter at Friendly Center, for instance, arbitrarily lock your cart's wheels if you parked near Red Mango rather than near REI?

Or was it just the store we shop at that received this special attention?

Bad management either way. The money they save by not having so many cart pickup runs a hundred yards to the west (while still having lots of them the same distance to the north) is not likely to repay the ill will created for all the customers who found themselves with an immobile cart full of groceries they now had to shuttle to their car by hand. How many of them will not come back?

But maybe that's fine with the Harris Teeter management. Maybe they had too many customers, and this is their way of cutting back.

So ... customers like me have been laid off.

Isn't it nice, though, to realize that creating inconvenience for customers does not require the intervention of city government? Businesses are able to make customer-hostile decisions all by themselves.


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