It’s not too big, it’s not too small…it’s Just Write!
Funny how puns seem more humorous too early in the morning with a lack of stimulants in your system. Given that the pun stuck as the actual title of this movie, I guess it’s safe to rule out crack as the movie’s inspiration.
There are two things I have to get out into the open before discussing Just Write. One, after watching The Big Squeeze, I did not have high hopes for another Fox Lorber DVD release. Fox Lorber seems to be the studio that releases all the independent movies the Big Boys passed over…and the movies that only found audiences at film festivals and were never released for public consumption. I mean, if a movie is that good, someone will open their purse strings and give it a wide release, write…err, right? Two, I confused the lead actress, Sherilyn Fenn, with her Twin Peaks costar, Sheryl Lee. I had seen Sheryl Lee in John Carpenter’s Vampires. Suffice it to say Sheryl Lee gets very naked in that movie, so I was hoping for a little more of the same.
Well, Just Write surprised me on both counts. I found it to be a very engaging romantic comedy. The only thing separating it from the hits of the genre was A-list talent and a larger budget. The PG-13 rating precludes the gratuitous display of flesh, but that was hardly necessary for me to enjoy the movie on a different level.
Just Write is the story of Harold McMurphy (Jeremy Piven). Harold loves movies and has always dreamed of moving to Hollywood. Now that he’s there, his dream hasn’t quite lived up to his fantasy. He works for his dad’s (Alex Rocco) tour bus company, driving tourists around, acting as their guide to the rich and famous. Harold’s luck changes one day while visiting a friend at a trendy restaurant. At the restaurant, world famous actress Amanda Clark (Sherilyn Fenn) is having lunch with her agent, Sidney Stone (JoBeth Williams). When Sidney steps out of the room to take one of many cell phone calls, Harold works up the nerve to go over to the actress and introduce himself. Embarrassed of his current profession, he fudges a bit by saying he tells stories. She misinterprets that he is a screenwriter, and he doesn’t feel the need to contradict her. Amanda offers him a proposition: critique the screenplay for her next role. He agrees.
Harold and Amanda meet several times to discuss the script. A bond of friendship and blossoming love develops between the lowly bus driver and the shy star. She is impressed that he has found the same problems with her character that she found, and even asks him to rewrite the script. Now, Harold has himself in a bind. He can perpetuate the lie, keep seeing Amanda, but eventually be found out that he’s not really a screenwriter represented by high-flying agent Arthur Blake. The sizable check he would receive for the rewrite would even help his dad out of the financial bind that his tour bus company is in. Or, he can tell her the truth and take the risk that she’ll throw him out of her life forever. So, he hatches a scheme. He convinces top agent Arthur Blake (Wallace Shawn) to at least pose as his agent until he can finish the screenplay. He reads up all he can on screenwriting so he can tackle the daunting project.
However, storm clouds appear on the horizon. Every romantic comedy needs its crisis so the characters can reconcile for the happy ending. Just Write‘s crisis is a phone conversation between Amanda and Harold’s father. Harold’s father thinks that the voice on the other end of the line is Lulu (Yeardley Smith), a floozy he had recently introduced to Harold. He tells Amanda that Harold isn’t interested in her and that he’s a jerk. Amanda believes him, and does not want to see Harold any more. To prove that he loves her and is really the man he says he is, he finishes the screenplay, but she will have no part of it. Will they live Happily Ever After? Did I tell you it was a romantic comedy? Of course they will, but I’m not going to spoil the ending.
Jeremy Piven and Sherilyn Fenn are very likable as the romantic leads. Piven may not be a household name, but he should be recognizable to most spectators of pop culture. He has had smaller roles in movies such as Say Anything… (geez, why isn’t that one available on DVD?), Grosse Point Blank, and Very Bad Things. He has also starred in the TV series Ellen and the short-lived Cupid. As Harold, he’s laid-back and charming, the epitome of a nice guy pulled unwittingly into an ethical dilemma and who wants to make it write…err, right. Fenn is radiant as the starlet on the cusp of making it big. She’s also very emotional — even if everyone recognizes her on the street, she doesn’t want her heart broken by this nice guy who she really likes.
The supporting cast, though, is a mixed bag. Wallace Shawn should be a familiar face (or voice). Among his wide body of work, he was particularly memorable in The Princess Bride (“Socrates? Plato? Morons!”) and Clueless. He was also the voice of the panicky dinosaur in the two Toy Story movies. Unfortunately, he only has five minutes of screen time at the most. The same cannot be said of JoBeth Williams. Most of her big big screen roles are decades behind her — Kramer Vs. Kramer, Poltergeist, The Big Chill. Since then, she’s mostly been seen in made-for-TV movies (none of which co-starred Valerie Bertinelli). Sidney Stone is the most annoying character in the movie. Maybe that’s how real-world agents really act, but thank God I don’t need one. Though his career goes back to the 1960s, Alex Rocco was not familiar to me until I saw one of his TV guest appearances. Fans of The Simpsons will recognize his voice at least as that of Roger Meyer, Jr., head of the studio that produces Itchy and Scratchy. Also of note to Simpsons fans is Yeardley Smith. Since the show’s inception, she has been the voice of put-upon middle daughter Lisa.
Fox Lorber’s release of Just Write is rather bare-bones, but I would expect little more from them or of the movie. The movie is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen. The non-anamorphic picture is clean, with no digital or NTSC artifacts visible. Colors were accurate and properly saturated. Audio is presented in stereo, which isn’t particularly impressive but it gets the job done — this is an independent movie, so what would you expect? A Dolby mix or anamorphic transfer would probably cost more than the entire budget of the movie, and it’s not like it won any Oscars. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.
The only thing that keeps me from giving it an unequivocal recommendation was JoBeth Williams’ performance. Every time she appeared or opened her mouth, I wanted to grit my teeth. For an actress with such experience, she overacted like a complete amateur, or William Shatner.
For the work of a first-time director and first-time screenwriter, I’m impressed. American Beauty it isn’t (also the work of a freshmen writer/director team), but I would compare it favorably against other big-budget entries of its genre, such as Sleepless In Seattle. Explosion junkies will want to stay away, but anyone who likes lighthearted, romantic fare will surely enjoy it. Support small cinema and give it a try!