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02/11/15 9:00am
Photo courtesy of RLJE/Image Entertainment Films

The Rewrite
Directed by Marc Lawrence
Opens February 13

Marc Lawrence has directed four features to date; all of them are rom-coms starring Hugh Grant as a well-off urbanite. In Two Weeks Notice (2002), Grant’s a real-estate tycoon who falls for his new chief counsel (Sandra Bullock); in Music and Lyrics (2007), he’s a faded pop star who writes a song with the charming girl (Drew Barrymore) who waters his plants; in Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009), he’s a lawyer trying to win back his wife (Sarah Jessica Parker); and in The Rewrite, Lawrence’s new movie, he’s Keith Michaels, a past-his-prime Hollywood screenwriter who travels cross-country to take a teaching gig at Binghamton University. One gets the sense that Lawrence and Grant will stop working together once the former has run out of ideas for swanky professions with which to match his favorite actor.

Across these movies, Grant has practiced a bumbling, stammering comic persona: his principal physical moves include pleading hand gestures, hunched-forward hesitations, and lip-licking pauses. These tics reached a kind of atrocious apex in Morgans, in which Grant scrambles so hard to land each joke that he hardly ever appears to be making actual eye contact with Parker. His register is complemented much more satisfyingly by Barrymore’s mellow, down-to-earth presence in Music and Lyrics—still Lawrence and Grant’s fleetest and most winning endeavor.

In theory, The Rewrite’s pairing of Grant with the breezy Marisa Tomei (as a student/single mom/waitress/bookstore clerk) is ideal, but the surrounding details sour the movie. Lawrence, surprisingly for a real-life Binghamton graduate, provides an awfully regrettable depiction of college life: Keith’s LA-to-campus town trek is treated—like the Manhattan-to-Wyoming journey of Morgans—with a condescending, this-place-is-lame attitude. (The sideline characterizations are also problematic: the most talented student in Keith’s class is a perpetual sneezer who tells Keith, “I aspire to nerd.”)

Grant’s character is out of whack, too: his comments at a faculty party paint him as a cracked misogynist—an impression that’s confirmed when he chooses his class roster according to how attractive he finds the social-media photos of potential students. Considering that Grant—now 54 and graying—often seems tired throughout the movie, as if he were sick of his own shtick, these off-putting character traits might have at least made for compelling psychological viewing. But Lawrence softens the man up, leaving precious little for Tomei to do in the process. Danny King

11/05/14 4:00am

The Homesman
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones

The opening credits of Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman—a series of landscape shots (ample vistas, golden sunsets, purple skies) from DP Rodrigo Prieto—offer images that, though beautiful, hint at something unknown in their total emptiness. As in his previous widescreen western, the contemporary-set Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Jones imagines this wide-open environment as a threatening space characterized by psychological warfare, disturbing comedy, and savage violence.

Before these concerns materialize, however, The Homesman—set in 1850s Nebraska and adapted from Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel—centers on a virtuous character, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), whose worries are of the everyday variety: plowing her land, sweeping the floors, preparing a generous supper. At 31, though, her “uncommonly alone” lifestyle is starting to wear thin.

When she learns that three local women have gone mad, Cuddy—rightly sensing that the respective husbands aren’t up to the task—volunteers to transport them to Iowa for treatment. Cuddy receives a bolted wagon equipped for the cross-country journey, and the last ingredient of the road-movie-ish premise arrives when she stumbles upon a left-for-dead claim-jumper—George Briggs (Jones), his face stained from dynamite residue—and promises him $300 if he makes the trip with her.

The strength of Cuddy’s character (performed with great poise by Swank) and the implications of the women’s insanity—through short “memory hits” (Jones’s term), the movie portrays the toxic influence of men—initially imbue The Homesman with a bracing feminist agenda. However, a truly shocking, late-breaking event repositions the entire movie; whether it compromises or cruelly asserts the aforementioned feminism is, perhaps to Jones’s credit, difficult to tell.

What’s clearer is that the shift reaffirms the viciousness of Jones’s vision: there are more than enough tossed-aside corpses and graves here to justify a title along the lines of Three Burials. Cameos from the likes of Tim Blake Nelson (as a disgusting drifter) and James Spader (as the owner of a hotel that, in an astonishing sequence, reaches a fiery fate) only add to this sea of carnage. If it can’t be said that Jones has produced a cohesive work with The Homesman, it can’t be denied that the movie is stuffed with moments that are genuinely—often bafflingly—unexpected.

Opens November 14