Write When You Get Work is that classic story of an estranged couple, where the woman has done everything in her power to move on and build an independent life for herself while the man steamrolls over all her carefully laid plans because he knows best. Johnny and Ruth are ex-high school sweethearts nine years past graduation, not in contact with one another and linked only by a teen pregnancy that ended with an adoption.
Ruth has grown up, working as an admissions counselor at a prestigious Manhattan school for girls. Johnny, on the other hand, is in a state of arrested development, unable to hold down a job and routinely engaging in small-scale grifts. (He is played by Finn Wittrock, whose dreamy smile and floppy hair that would make a 90s teen idol jealous are almost charming enough to disguise Johnny’s douchier qualities.)
The two are brought back together by the sudden death of a shared high school mentor, whose wake they both attend. Johnny wastes no time insinuating himself back into Ruth’s life in increasingly intrusive ways: their reunion scene occurs after Johnny steals Ruth’s address at the wake, then breaks into her apartment and waits for her to come home, in what I can only imagine is meant to be a charming and endearing expression of affection. But if you’re feeling particularly outraged by this, pace yourself, I beg of you — it’s immediately apparent that there is no boundary Johnny is unwilling to cross in pursuit of his own goals with absolutely zero regard for anyone else.
Over the next hour and a half, we watch him turn up at her school to surprise her, steal wallets from some of her older students, masquerade as a father to submit an application for his friend’s daughter to gain a position in the new kindergarten class, crash a party hosted by one of the school’s board members who also happens to be blackmailing Ruth, and cons one of the parents into entrusting him with several million dollars worth of jewelry. The film handwaves all of this aside because he apparently has noble intentions, but honestly, it’s borderline sociopathic behavior.
All of this is a shame because the focus on Johnny and all of his nonsense undercuts the power of Ruth’s character. Although the film seems as though it is supposed to be balanced between the two characters and their relationship, so much of it revolves around Johnny, and Ruth suffers in comparison.
As it stands, despite the best efforts of actress Rachel Keller, Ruth is underdeveloped and thinly written when she ought to be one of the more compelling characters in the piece. There is implied strength in her life story, as she gives a much-loved son up for adoption and struggles to find a way into a respectable career that exists on the fringe of upper-class Manhattan society, but we see almost none of it on screen. Just as Johnny dominates every single character, he overwhelms the film and leaves room for no one else to exist.
But while the treatment of Ruth is unfortunate, Emily Mortimer’s existence in the film as Nan Noble, socialite wife and mother who gives Johnny access to her fortune in a half-backed exist strategy in case her husband goes to prison for financial crimes, is downright nonsensical. Her performance is fine because it’s Emily Mortimer and she’s always good, but the things we are asked to accept about her character go well beyond suspension of disbelief. The idea that a sophisticated, worldly woman would entrust all of her financial assets to a man that she has just met is utter nonsense. In order to accept the narrative of the film, we must believe that Nan is a complete idiot.
While the characterization of Johnny, Ruth, and Nan are all problematic in their own ways, the biggest flaw in the film is that it bills itself as a romantic comedy, but isn’t particularly romantic or funny. Johnny and Ruth have the type of relationship that failed for good reason in the past and will likely fail again, more built on chemistry than sense or compatibility. And the narrative is muddled, unengaging, and just plain unlikeable. Although the actors involved are all capable of strong performances, they certainly aren’t at their best here, and unfortunately, Write When You Get Work is rather dead on arrival.