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Music and Lyrics (2007) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 14 February 2007
“Music and Lyrics” is a reasonably good romantic comedy buoyed by the charm of its lead actors, Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. They don’t do anything new here, but they do what they do do very well, and strike some sparks. There’s not really quite enough to the story, and it takes too long to get somewhat serious about Barrymore’s character, but it’s pretty much agreeable fun all the way through.

The movie opens with a 1980s rock video featuring the group Pop, who had a few hits. It’s a near-perfect, straight-faced parody, just a teensy over the top, and full of pop-art imagery. After a moment, you notice that Hugh Grant is one of the two lead singers, and clearly having a grand time.

After the credits, we meet Alex today. Pop had broken up not long after that hit, with Alex’s boyhood friend/musical partner setting out on his own and becoming very famous. (Surprisingly, and gratifyingly, the movie leaves it at that; we aren’t shown that guy getting his just desserts.) Alex went through a dismal time, but then nostalgia caught up with him and Pop—as someone says, there’s new old acts coming up all the time. He’s been working out an okay living appearing at amusement parks, retirement dinners, high school class reunions, state fairs, that sort of thing. His long-time manager Chris (Brad Garrett) has been getting Alex enough bookings to allow him to afford a pretty nice Manhattan apartment.

He’s ready to appear on a new reality show even though it’s called Battle of the 80s Has-Beens until he learns it’s not a musical battle—it’s a boxing match. Now Chris tells him that a new girl singing star, more famous than Britney or Christina, we learn, is a fan of Alex’s old group and wants him to try to write her a brand-new hit song called “A Way Back to Love.” They have a quick meeting with the star, Cora Corman (Haley Bennett), and Alex quickly enlists a lyricist—Alex does melodies, not lyrics—but he wants to do a bitterly ironic song, not the upbeat tune Alex favors. And the song has to be complete in just a few days. So who to get?

Well, Alex recently met Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) when she showed up as his new plant lady. She casually came up with a couple of lines, so he has her return to write lyrics. (This meet-cute is the weakest part of the film, but it’s over with quickly.) She has her own problems. We learn that she’d had an affair with her married college professor Sloan Cates (Campbell Scott). It ended badly, and she’s been afraid to try anything on her own ever since.

It takes a bit for she and Alex to connect musically, but they do—and to their surprise and relief, the very busy, sweetly arrogant Cora likes the song—only she wants another verse. By this time, Alex and Sophie are not getting along all that well. For one thing, Cates’ novel has just been published to great acclaim—and it’s clear the central character, a needy loser, is based on Sophie.
The premise seems to suggest that the movie will be entirely about writing the song, and the developing romance between Alex and Sophie—but it goes beyond both those ideas. Alex has become about half-convinced that he really is a total has-been, and that maybe he wasn’t even a star before. His one solo album was a disaster—one copy of the CD has been on sale at a record store for six years (he’s checked)—and he has come to accept that maybe he deserves only to appear at Knotts’ Berry Farm and the like. But Sophie thinks otherwise. Just as Alex thinks she actually has talent; he wants her to realize that herself.

There’s an interesting twist in that Cora, presented as good-hearted but completely assured of her own importance, wants to present their song in a gruesomely awful mock-Indian/Buddhist setting and style. Alex and Chris are ready to pretend to embrace the idea—hey, it’s a chance at new fame—but Sophie isn’t.

This complication comes fairly late in the movie, and arrives around the same time that we understand more clearly what happened between Sophie and Cates. This has the somewhat negative effect of cramming the last few reels with a lot of talk, some strained gags (as when Sophie struggles to tell off Cates), and not enough about the relationship between Sophie and Alex. But that’s a relatively minor failing. Writer/director Marc Lawrence has mostly been associated with Sandra Bullock (he wrote both “Miss Congeniality” outings) as a writer, but turned director with Bullock’s “Two Weeks Notice,” costarring Hugh Grant. Lawrence did adequate-to-good work there, and here as well. If he continues at this level, that would be fine.

Grant here is pretty much Grant as usual—he makes clever, self-critical wisecracks, he bats his eyes, he tosses lines away with characteristic aplomb—but here he gets to be a pop star, too. And while he probably shouldn’t consider changing careers, he’s convincing as the kind of pop star who ends up largely with girl fans.

Drew Barrymore also goes through the usual Drew Barrymore/romantic comedy stuff, and she’s both sweet and acerbic as usual. She’s an attractive and cute straight on, and has the classic Barrymore profile. (She’s John’s granddaughter.) She and Grant work well together, neither dominating in their shared scenes.

Brad Garrett, though likeable enough, is somewhat wasted as Hugh’s loyal manager. He mostly reacts rather than actrs, as when he says maybe if he’d had plants like Alex does, his wife wouldn’t have left him. Right, says Alex, not her affairs and raging nymphomania, but “your lack of vegetation.”

As Sophie’s older sister, Kristen Johnston (“Third Rock from the Sun”) is a dazzler. She was a raging fan of Alex before, and still is, but she never quite loses it. And she’s perfectly cast—she looks rather like an overinflated Drew Barrymore sex doll. Johnston is almost but not quite too much, and to a degree seems to be in a different, broader movie than the rest of the cast. But she’s funny anyway.

The real find of the movie, though, is Haley Bennett, making her movie debut as Cora Corman. Again, Lawrence is careful not to overstate her; this isn’t a satire of pop stars, after all, and Cora is treated essentially realistically, even if comically. She’s also shown to be genuinely talented (and Bennett has recorded an album) and kind, even if she is always blithely sure that she’s the most important person in the room.

The music and lyrics in “Music and Lyrics” are adequate; you can buy these songs as being the pop hits they are, even if they’re really nothing very special. The movie is so ingratiating and good-natured that you’re willing to forgive it for not presenting actual sure-fire hits.

Movies released this time of year are usually those studios have little faith in, but “Music and Lyrics” has the potential to surprise Warner Bros. It’s not likely to be a runaway hit, but it will please most of those who see it. As for the rest, well, there’s always “Dreamgirls.”

Be sure to stay through the entertaining part of the end credits.

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