"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is."
-- Noel Coward
Music and Lyrics is a nice, light, bright romantic comedy -- a demonstration of the best and the worst of modern romantic comedy in action, in fact -- that only winds up winning you over because it's not hard to have a good time watching Hugh Grant be charming and Drew Barrymore be sweet. I mean, they're good at those things, so in many ways the success of Music and Lyrics is just the triumph of watching professionals at work. Grant is Alex Fletcher, who used to be one of the members of Pop!, an '80s pop band whose work evokes not-entirely-pleasant memories of Wham, A-Ha and ABC. Making a living off of royalties and mall appearances, Fletcher could nonetheless use a big break -- which he gets, as popstar-of-the-moment Cora Corman (Haley Bennett) asks Alex to write her a song.
Alex is a melody man -- and he knows this. After looking for hired-gun co-writers, into Alex's life wanders, in true modern romantic comedy fashion, the last thing he ever expected. ... Namely, substitute plant watering contractor Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), whose idle under-her-breath musings on Alex's music suggest that she may be a natural songwriter. Can the two of them not only finish a hit song before the end of the week but reconcile their growing attraction and affection? Do objects fall down when you drop them?
Marc Lawrence wrote and directed Music and Lyrics; Lawrence has previously given us his directorial debut, Two Week's Notice, as well as scripting Miss Congeniality and Forces of Nature. This is not a resume to inspire much hope in anyone whose understanding of romantic comedy extends past the Clinton years. Watching a classic romantic comedy is like unwrapping a present: there are surprises inside, even if you know the general shape of what you're dealing with. Modern romantic comedies are like wrapping presents -- enjoyable, but without a single surprise. There is one surprise in Music and Lyrics, though -- namely, how well Lawrence's script works with its setting of pop music.
There's something majestically cynical, for example, in how the producer of a show called "Battle of the '80s Has-Beens" is sanguine about Alex declining to box Adam Ant: "There are new old acts coming up all the time." Alex's hangdog, dedicated manger -- a small part, but a lively one, for Brad Garrett -- explains that the fall fair schedule is a bit less booked than both of them would like. Cora is transforming every song she's given into bhangra-beat, sensual-yet-senseless dance re-mixes " ... because Shakira is breathing down my neck!"
Lawrence also has done us a simple favor; perhaps realizing that moviegoers were going to hear a thousand variations of whatever song Alex and Sophie hammered out, he's at least hired a confident, competent songwriter -- Adam Schlesinger, of Fountains of Wayne sub-fame -- to write something good. "Way Back Into Love" -- which we hear a lot -- actually has an upbeat tone and a wistfull tremor to it, making it easy to enjoy even as we hear it over, and over, and over again. Schlesinger also did similar duties for Tom Hanks, writing the eponymous single for That Thing You Do. It seems that if you want a song you can play 20 times in 90 minutes without driving all within earshot into a homicidal rage, Schlesinger's your guy.
There are a thousand ways Music and Lyrics could be better. Grant's character may be a long way from the top, but it certainly seems he's also got a good distance to go before he hits the bottom. Alex lives pretty well, has an apartment big enough to hold a piano, and so on; it might have made things a bit more compelling if Alex had some real impetus (Willie Nelson-style tax trouble, for example) to make a hit a necessity. And as much as Grant coasts on past tricks -- blithely spouting self-loathing with a twinkle in his eye -- Barrymore is an even more egregious offender. Sophie's flat skip of a character arc involves Barrymore working the stammer and sass that have made her romantic-comedy resume the cinematic equivalent of a pint of Chunky Monkey Ice Cream: Soothing, and comforting, but you wouldn't want anyone you respect to know you'd consumed the whole thing.
And even then, maybe it's just because, damn it, I used to own a white denim jacket, and the sight of Pop!'s drummer whaling on those hexagonal synth-drums in the opening video brought me back. It's hard to let go of the '80s -- a fact best demonstrated by Kristen Johnson's goofy, goony supporting part as Sophie's sister Rhonda, who was apparently likeohmygodthebiggestpop!faneverrrrrrrrrrr!!!
Music and Lyrics is custom-designed for Barrymore and Grant, and if that close kind of fit plays to their strengths, it also conceals some of their uniqueness. Grant is never truly unlikable in this movie -- he's so aware of his own flaws and failings that he'll point them out before you even see them -- but he's also rarely anything but Hugh Grant, either. And I'm not suggesting that Barrymore needs to return to the Poison Ivy franchise, but she needs to do something soon to bust out of the dorky-yet-doe-eyed rut she's landed in where fumbles her way right into your heart.
But as Mr. Coward pointed out, it's extraordinary how potent cheap music is -- and how potent cheap moviemaking can be, too. There are squandered opportunities here -- like the subplot around Sophie's ex, author Sloan Cates (Campbell Scott), that pretty much goes nowhere and does nothing. And, yes, we're not given much of a reason as to why Alex and Sophie would fall for each other, aside from the fact that they're the stars of the movie and therefore contractually obligated to at least look like they're giving it a try.
But then there'll be a little moment -- Grant breaking out a few bits and pieces of gear by his computer and self-producing a demo just sitting in his own home, for one, or Barrymore's literal and figurative discovery of her voice through song -- and Music and Lyrics shines a bit more brightly in those moments than you'd expect. Like the song it revolves around, Music and Lyrics is simple, enjoyable ... and disposable, even if you are left with it stuck pleasantly in your head for the next few days.