Hugh Grant has starred in a few clunkers in his day, but his track record with romantic comedies is surprisingly solid. I suspect this is because he seldom deviates from the characters he’s best at: smart, self-deprecating, a little bumbling, and endlessly charming. He can rattle off a sardonic aside so quickly that the other characters don’t even notice he’s made a joke.
It’s no surprise, then, that “Music and Lyrics” is a frothy, funny, frivolous affair, largely because of Grant’s contributions. His costar is Drew Barrymore, whose positive qualities I have never been able to ascertain, and while her character is (typically) loopy and off-kilter in a movie-character sort of way, she’s rather endearing, too. They’re a better pair than you’d expect them to be, especially given the 15-year age difference between them.
Grant plays Alex Fletcher, keyboardist for the fictional ’80s pop band Pop! and now generally referred to as “the other guy from Pop!” (see also: Andrew Ridgeley, “the other guy from Wham!”). The lead singer went on to solo fame and fortune, while Alex now does state fairs and Knott’s Berry Farm and other medium-paying, semi-demeaning gigs. And he’s content to do so. He makes a decent living, no one expects much of him, and the whole “retro” thing means a lot of 40-year-old women are thrilled to see him shake his booty when he performs at their 20-year class reunions. He’s perfectly fine with being a has-been.
His manager, Chris (Brad Garrett), gets him a new opportunity, though: to write a song for Cora (Haley Bennett), the vapid, faux-Buddhist hoochie mama currently outselling Britney and Xtina and showing up in all the kids’ ringtones. (Her most recent hit: “Entering Bootytown.”) Cora likes Pop!’s old sound and wants Alex to pen something new for her. Alex is glad to try, but he was never a lyricist, only a composer. Where will he ever find someone to write the words?
The answer, as you have probably already guessed, is that the woman who comes by to water his plants every day can spout awesome lyrics extemporaneously. (You can hire someone to come by and water your plants every day, even when you’re home? Why can’t you water them yourself?) Her name is Sophie; she is played with the usual dose of free-spirited whimsy by Ms. Barrymore; she pricks her finger on a cactus and insists upon immediate Band-Aids and antibacterial cream; la la la, Sophie is so adorably peculiar.
Anyway, they endeavor to write Cora’s song together, with Alex’s fastidiousness bumping up against Sophie’s neuroses and his commercial instincts battling her artistic integrity. It’s all amusingly written and directed by Marc Lawrence (of “Two Weeks Notice,” which also starred Grant), and I appreciate that the plot doesn’t follow the template usually laid out for romantic comedies. While the romance here does seem inevitable, it’s not like we’re looking at our watches, sighing impatiently, waiting for it to happen. The film is enjoyable enough on its own, just as a comedy.
That said, the plot does go off in strange directions occasionally. Sophie has a hang-up concerning a former writing professor (Campbell Scott) who based a character in his novel on her, and there’s a seemingly unnecessary conflict between Sophie and Alex about Cora’s sexed-up presentation of their song. For that matter, you could argue that everything occurring after the song is written is pure filler. Once that primary goal is accomplished, what else do we need to do?
Ah, but no matter. The opening credit sequence features a Pop! video from 1984, and it’s devilishly accurate, down to the last wispy strand of feathered hair and the “futuristic” synthesized instruments. Kristen Johnston earns a few laughs as Sophie’s Pop!-obsessed older sister, and the songs featured throughout the film — many of them supposedly from the ’80s — aren’t half-bad, if you like that sort of thing (which I do).
Romantic comedies are often nothing more than variations of each other, and after seeing too many, one starts to approach them with a certain wariness. “Music and Lyrics” is a pleasant surprise — or, as Pop! put it more poetically in 1984, “I wasn’t gonna fall in love again, but then pop goes my heart.”
B (1 hr., 36 min.; )