Thursday, February 15, 2007
Alex Fletcher used to be A-list. As co-frontman of a 1980s hit machine called PoP!—think of him as the Andrew Ridgeley in this particular riff on Wham!—he knew what it was like to be a guy the ladies all dreamed about. But the entertainment business is fickle, and when PoP! broke up, he was left with a catalog of once-beloved works and gigs playing class reunions and amusement parks for nostalgia-hungry 30-somethings. In his mid-40s, Alex Fletcher is a walking, talking trivia question.
Don’t think the parallel is lost on Hugh Grant. In his stammering, floppy-haired mid-1990s heyday, Grant owned the role of the self-effacing romantic comedy hero. But he has worked only sporadically since the turn of the century; in Music and Lyrics, he’s returning to the rom-com genre for the first time since 2002’s Two Weeks Notice (also by writer/director Marc Lawrence). And with a knowing performance, Grant proves he’s more than that guy who used to be charming.
He certainly has a livelier career than Alex Fletcher, who appears to have become the kind of celebrity content to do reality shows and living in the past tense. Yet he gets an improbable shot at a comeback when teen diva Cora Corman (Haley Bennett) proclaims she’s a fan, and wants Alex to write her a new single. Unfortunately, Alex is convinced that he’s only any good at writing melodies—and he’s so desperate for a lyricist to land him the assignment that he enlists the assistance of his new plant-caretaker, Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), when she spouts some impromptu poetry.
That might be the only kind of poetry you’d expect in a film created by the guy whose big résumé points are the Miss Congeniality films, but Lawrence does some surprisingly effective work with his concept. He opens with a terrific faux video for PoP!’s breakout hit that manages not just to nail the visual style of 1984-era MTV clips, but to be a catchy enough tune that it’s completely convincing as a number one single. He gives Third Rock from the Sun’s Kristen Johnston a great part as Sophie’s older sister, a tough businesswoman and mother who turns into a giggling schoolgirl when she meets her childhood idol. Even the role of the Britney-esque pop princess heads in a slightly off-center direction, with Haley Bennett’s Cora more about big-hearted immaturity than self-absorbed ditziness.
What he does best, however, is give his dialogue an unexpected crackle. The best romantic comedies, from Woman of the Year to When Harry Met Sally, have always understood that the genre depends on people snapping off witticisms you’d never think to say, and at a faster pace than you’d ever think to say them. And while Music and Lyrics certainly doesn’t approach that classic territory, it comes from that place of heightened reality where people always seem to know just the most clever and romantic remark for any given moment.
Like this self-deprecating winner from Grant’s Alex after he compliments Sophie: “It’s because my pants are so tight that they force all the blood to my heart.” It’s hard to imagine too many actors who could pull off a line like that, and that’s why Grant is so priceless here. He’s graduated from the nervous tics that made his early screen characters occasionally too much to take, yet he still has the same way with a sharp one-liner. Here he’s playing a character almost too comfortable in his own skin; Alex hides behind glibness to mask his insecure conviction that he’ll never create anything new and worthwhile. Grant never quite reveals the desperation in Alex’s quest to please Cora, but his simple likeability masks his dramatic shortcomings.
Music and Lyrics might have headed closer to classic territory if Lawrence could have masked more of Barrymore’s shortcomings. She’s a winning screen personality with a radiant smile, but she’s never shown the chops to create a real, complex character. Sophie’s own insecurities are stated but never fully felt, leaving one half of the film’s pairing to carry most of the weight. Fortunately, Hugh Grant is up to the task. The hair’s a bit shorter, and there are a few more wrinkles around the eyes—but when it comes to providing the charm that energizes a romantic comedy, he still knows how to make it pop.
MUSIC AND LYRICS ( * * * )
Written and directed by Marc Lawrence. • Starring Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Kristen Johnston. • PG-13, 96 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.