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Movie Review

'Just Write' Takes Witty, Romantic Look at Hollywood

September 25, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Just Write" is just right, a blithe yet incisive romantic comedy that strikes a deft balance between fantasy and reality, humor and seriousness.

Jeremy Piven, a busy and versatile young actor, moves easily into a leading man role, and Sherilyn Fenn, so often a risk-taking actress, here gets to play a thoroughly likable, beautiful and down-to-earth movie star on the cusp of the big time--which might describe Fenn's actual status. You come away hoping that "Just Write" will do as much for Piven and Fenn as it does for the characters they play.

Piven's Harold McMurphy is a 30-year-old driver-guide for his father's failing Trolleywood Tours. Harold, who can't seem to find an attractive woman willing to go out with a guy with so humble a job, is not at a good place in his life. While visiting his best pal, Danny (Jeffrey Sams), in the posh Melrose restaurant where Danny works as a bartender, Harold has a chance encounter with movie star Amanda Clark (Fenn). With some frantic signaling from Danny, Harold, who loves movies, is nudged into passing himself off as that most familiar creature in Greater L.A., a screenwriter.

As it happens Amanda's crass, hardheaded agent (JoBeth Williams, very funny yet not a caricature) is leaning hard on her to sign for a role in a Brad Pitt picture that will move her into the $30 million-budget league. But Amanda does not see in the script the progression from innocence to evil in the character she is to portray--and further suspects the writer really doesn't like women--and is therefore resisting. She persuades Harold to have a read, and when he confirms her suspicions about the script she insists he's the man to do a rewrite. But what to do? Harold, for all his ideas and insights, has never written a word, and worse, he's falling fast for the lovely star.

Doubtless there are plenty of writers who could set up Harold's predicament. The test is how to take it from there, and this is where writer Stan Williamson proves his mettle in avoiding predictability while sustaining credibility. What Williamson does so shrewdly is to shift away, for the moment, from Amanda to reveal the crucial role Harold's widowed father (Alex Rocco) plays in his life. With the best intentions, this warm, funny man proves a monster in his determination to stifle his son's dreams in his desire to protect him from hurt and disappointment.

Rocco is just the actor with the range and presence to play a man who elicits decidedly contradictory emotions. This gives "Just Write" a wholly unexpected and welcome dimension that adds much to the impact of the film's payoff. Also worth singling out is Yeardley Smith as the amusingly aggressive kook Harold's father has lined up to divert him from Amanda. There are sharp cameos from Wallace Shawn, Ed McMahon and Jay Leno.

Williamson is lucky to have as his director Andrew Gallerani, who gets all possible shadings and nuances from his script and his actors. For a movie so dialogue- and plot-driven, "Just Write" moves with ease, grace and lightness. "Just Write" allows mainstream audience to feel they may be getting a satirical insider's view of how Hollywood works without becoming too arcane--or brutal--for romantic comedy.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sex-related humor. Times guidelines: Suitable family fare.

'Just Write'

Jeremy Piven: Harold McMurphy

Sherilyn Fenn: Amanda Clark

Alex Rocco: Harold's father

JoBeth Williams: Sidney Stone

A BMG Entertainment release of a Wind Chill Productions presentation. Director Andrew Gallerani. Producer Heath McLaughlin. Executive producer Jim Kreutzer. Screenplay by Stan Williamson. Cinematographer Michael Brown. Editor Laura M. Grody. Costumes Arlene Toback. Music Leland Bond. Production designer Roger Collins. Set decorator Jodi Ginnever.. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

* At selected theaters.

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