I completely forgive Marc Lawrence for the shambles of a screenplay he wrote for Miss Congeniality 2 (2005). His new offering, Music and Lyrics, more than atones for it. No, it’s not a groundbreaking film. It’s not even Hugh Grant’s best film (though it may well be Drew Barrymore’s), but when the competition includes About a Boy (2002) and Love Actually (2003) that’s no disgrace. It is, however, the best Grant vehicle in a straightforward, romantic comedy in some considerable time. It’s witty, playful, charming and satisfying—an unpretentious confection that’s just right and a little bit more.
From the moment the movie begins—with an ersatz music video from the 1980s of Alex Fletcher (Grant) and his old pop group, Pop, performing their hit “Pop Goes My Heart”—it’s on the right track in more than one way. Not only is the video a spot-on spoof of the ones from that era (it takes no serious adjustment to rethink the thing with Duran Duran, Wham! or Tears for Fears), but both the video and the song are believable. It’s not for a moment unreasonable to ask us to accept that both were popular. One of the secrets—and it’s an important one—to the success of Music and Lyrics lies in the film’s ability to walk the line between an outright parody of ‘80s music and an affectionate salute to it. The songs are actually pretty good and undeniably catchy. Lawrence was shrewd in tapping pop-rock musician Adam Schlesinger (of the group Fountains of Wayne) to write tunes that pass muster as the real thing. (If that sounds only reasonable, think of the endless stream of movies that focus on the making of a movie, the staging of a play, or whatever artistic endeavor you care to name where it’s impossible to imagine anyone sitting through the results.)
Clever as the approach to the music is, the film immediately tops it by revealing that the video is being run by TV execs considering Alex for a spot on a show called Battle of the ‘80s Has-Beens, which turns out not to be the artistic standoff Alex envisions, but a literal fight. Although Alex is perfectly content with the easy life of a has-been, he’s not that delighted by the prospect of engaging in fisticuffs with Debbie Gibson. He’s even less thrilled when he learns that state fairs and venues like Knott’s Berry Farm are starting to cancel his engagements. Potential salvation—and a chance to revitalize his career—arrives in the form of ditsy pop diva Cora Corman (newcomer Haley Bennett). Cora turns out to be a fan of Alex’s music, and wants him to write a song for her—a duet that he’ll sing with her when she launches her new tour at Madison Square Garden. The catch is that Alex doesn’t write lyrics, and since he’s estranged from his non-has-been bandmate Colin (TV actor Scott Porter), he needs a partner. When the partner his manager (TV actor Brad Garrett) hires proves impossible, Alex finds that Sophie Fisher (Barrymore)—the girl hired to water his plants—has a way with words, and an improbable partnership is formed.
What happens from there is largely a foregone conclusion, of course, but the film—and the impeccable playing, surprising chemistry and even more surprising pleasant vocalizing of the leads—makes the journey a delightful one. It helps that most of the supporting roles are almost equally as good. Even the pop diva turns out to be more than the easy Britney Spears knockoff she might have been; she’s an airhead (the film’s best line concerns her concept of the Dalai Lama), but not unaware of what keeps her career afloat, and not ultimately unlikable.
The only slightly false note is a subplot about Sophie’s involvement with a pompous writer (Campbell Scott), which is used as the basis for the penultimate reel’s obligatory musician-loses-lyricist complication. (That said, this subplot does afford Barrymore a terrific comedy scene in a restaurant.) As stated, this isn’t a great movie, but it’s so charming and witty that you probably won’t care. I certainly didn’t—and I won’t when I see it again. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke