The Movie Review: 'Music and Lyrics'

Hugh Grant once described his acting range, with typical deprecatory charm, as "sinisterly narrow." He was selling himself short: In fact, the charming Brit bears a rare gift for all forms of onscreen humility, from rueful abashment to outright self-loathing. His performances, as a rule, are extended exercises in contrition; even when he plays a self-satisfied alpha male (as in, say, the Bridget Jones movies), the promise of eventual humiliation lurks. Grant's real-life arrest with hooker Divine Brown in 1995 was widely expected to render him unsuitable for the romantic comedies he has favored throughout his career. Instead, it somehow made him all the more agreeable. At least now we can begin to imagine what it is he's so embarrassed about.

It's hard to think of any handsome actor of Grant's generation (or those that have followed) so devoid of evident onscreen vanity. In an industry that demands action-star turns from even former über-goobers such as Nicholas Cage and Keanu Reeves, Grant is all but unique in looking as though he's never set foot in a gym. Indeed, a hallmark of his oeuvre has been his utter physical inadequacy, whether struggling to climb a park fence over which Julia Roberts has just leapt, gazelle-like, in Notting Hill, or getting pummeled by a categorically unimposing Colin Firth in Bridget Jones's Diary.

In his latest film, Music and Lyrics, Grant extends this record of athletic futility by painfully pulling a thigh muscle while boogying on stage. It's a foreseeable mishap given that Grant is playing a washed-up pop idol named Alex Fletcher, one half of the highly-moussed 1980s duo Pop!, closely based on the band Wham! (One fictitious hit, "Meaningless Kiss," tiptoes awfully near a copyright violation in its imitation of "Careless Whisper.") Alex, sadly, is the unsuccessful half of the now-defunct duo, not George Michael but Andrew Whatever-his-name-was. You know who I mean: The poor guy could expose himself on the 50-yard-line during the Super Bowl and no one would even notice.

Like a real-life '80s refugee, Alex has gone on to a zombie post-career of playing state fairs and fielding humiliating offers from nostalgia-driven reality shows. That is, until he's approached by tween pop sensation Cora (Haley Bennett), a booty shaking quasi-Buddhist who wants him to write a duet for them to perform together at Madison Square Garden. There are just two problems: While tuneful enough, Alex can't write a lyric for his life; and the song is due in less than a week. Enter (literally) Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), who shows up at Alex's apartment to water the plants while his usual plant-waterer--who knew there were such creatures?--is out of town. Sophie arrives to pour and putter just as Alex is enduring a painful collaboration with a misanthropic songwriter hired by his agent (Brad Garrett). When Sophie suggests that a bitter lyric ending with "witch" might be better served not by continuing down the angry slope to "bitch," but rather by reversing course with a more hopeful "switch," Alex realizes he's found his new writing partner.

There's not much more to Music and Lyrics than that. Alex and Sophie collaborate, fall in love, fall out of love, and fall back in again. Cora adores the ballad they write, but complicates things by wanting to add in a sitar solo and a variety of pelvic thrusts. Alex sings (rather poorly, I'm afraid) a series of '80s-ish pop numbers. Sophie is given an unhappy subplot which makes criminal underuse of Campbell Scott. And the whole thing winds up, of course, at Madison Square Garden. (There are times the entire movie seems cobbled together from past Grant films: The dinner with starstruck friends/family and the gallant but ineffectual defense of his lady's honor in a restaurant from Notting Hill; the culminating onstage duet that Makes Everything Okay from About a Boy; et cetera.)

There are a handful of pleasures along the way, beginning with Grant's symptomatically self-deprecating performance. In addition to his tragic dance moves, the movie offers him innumerable opportunities to display his signal talent: underselling a line of dialogue. When, for instance, he explains to Barrymore that "People wait all their lives to see an ex-lover when things are going really well. It never happens," he tosses the second line, which most actors would draw out for a broad laugh, as idly as a crumpled bit of paper. It's an enormously appealing form of delivery--a kind of quasi-apology that the joke wasn't better to begin with--and its frequent deployment in Music and Lyrics rescues any number of otherwise mediocre lines.

Barrymore is likable too, though I've always found myself at least somewhat immune to her otherwise universal appeal. (Does one have to have grown up next door to a girl in order to get her girl-next-door schtick? I worry that my childhood neighbors' daughterlessness has left me missing a vital piece of cultural hardware.) As Sophie's Pop!-obsessed older sister Rhonda, Kristen Johnson (from "3rd Rock") is a genial bulldozer who enlivens every scene she's in.

Music and Lyrics is also the rare movie of its kind that's actually about what it's about, taking a real, if superficial, interest in the mechanics of pop songwriting. Too often the back story of a romantic comedy is confined to the way back, where it serves as little more than an excuse for lazily engineered conflicts: He's a billionaire developer and she's an environmental attorney! He's a corporate raider and she's a hooker! In Music and Lyrics, by contrast, the back story is actually better than the front story, with Grant and Barrymore more plausible--more likable, even--as collaborators than as canoodlers. There's a nice moment, for instance, when Sophie recognizes she's come up with a better turn of phrase--"corners of my mind," rather than "spaces in my mind"--and bursts with an enthusiasm and relief that will be familiar to any writer. Moreover, rather than taking easy shots at the vacuousness of pop, the film offers the more interesting observation that even the dippiest bit of musical flimflam (and the song Alex and Sophie write is somewhat better than that) is the result of real effort and craftsmanship.

Sadly, even as Music and Lyrics argues this point, it utterly fails to embody it. Despite the nice performances and winning premise, the film is often shoddily written and inexpertly staged. Sophie is given a tic--hypochondria--that gets forgotten for long stretches before being awkwardly reintroduced. The fires of the romantic subplot are kindled with a carelessness that would merit the wrath of a thousand boy scouts. A faux '80s video, "Pop Goes My Heart," that the filmmakers liked enough to place at both the beginning and end of the film (and include as an extra on the DVD) is mildly amusing but too slapdash to really fly as parody. And the concluding scene at the Garden is an absolute turkey, a sloppy narrative catchall that, in addition to making no sense in terms of character or context, even flubs the debut of Alex and Sophie's song, "Way Back into Love," omitting the final verse, which had played a crucial role in the plot. Indeed, the song is never played in its entirety at any point in the movie. Compare that to the comparably catchy title tune in That Thing You Do--also written by Adam Schlesinger, of the band Fountains of Wayne--which was played so often throughout the course of that film that it remains pleasantly seared in my cortex to this day. How can Music and Lyrics hope to persuade us that "pop matters" when it can't even be bothered to play the song whose creation has been its entire animating premise?

Had it displayed a bit more of the professionalism and attention to detail it extols, Music and Lyrics might have been the cinematic equivalent of a slight but enticing pop hit. Instead, it's a movie notable for Grant's signature self-effacement, but not much else. A few years ago, Grant reportedly acknowledged that, of all the films he's made, About a Boy is "the only one that does not make me cringe." It's hard to imagine that Music and Lyrics will be intruding upon that elite company. But we can be happy that it has at least given Hugh Grant something else to keep apologizing for.

The Home Movies List: Romancing Hugh

    Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). A black comedy widely mistaken for romantic. Grant was so winning in his breakthrough role that hardly anyone noticed how thoroughly unappealing his co-star, Andie McDowell, was.

    Sense and Sensibility (1995). Is it just me, or did Grant seem even more embarrassed than usual in this, his first film released after he made Divine Brown famous?

    Notting Hill (1999). A movie with one too many cycles of breaking up and getting back together for its own good, but nonetheless eminently enjoyable, with both stars (Grant and Julia Roberts) very much in their sweet spots.

    About a Boy (2002). The opposite of Four Weddings: While the former had romantic content but not a romantic soul, this was an exceptionally romantic movie that was not primarily concerned with romance.

    Two Weeks Notice (2002). If you think jokes about obese women being mistaken for pregnant are hilarious, this one's for you. Otherwise, skip this lame rookie effort by Music and Lyrics director Marc Lawrence.

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    Love Actually (2003).Crap, actually.