Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore have pretty much made their careers from playing star-crossed lovers in a series of romantic comedies and dramas, so it would seem inevitable they should appear in a film together. “Music and Lyrics” finally restores this cosmic balance, bringing them together in a film. Finally.
Grant and Barrymore also each have their own ‘shtick’; Grant’s characters usually make quick self-deprecating remarks providing humor to liven up the proceedings and Barrymore’ characters are usually more than a little manic, allowing her to be slightly off-putting to her potential mates until they learn she is really just a loveable goof. And each of these actors sticks close to their playbooks throughout this new romantic comedy, yet “Music” doesn’t provide the lyrics necessary for a hit.
The idea behind “Music and Lyrics” is Cora (Hayley Bennett), a Britney Spears-like pop princess, is a fan of Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant), the Andrew Ridgely-like member of a popular 80’s pop group named Pop. Now washed up and counting on upcoming appearances at Knott’s Berry Farm and high school reunions to pay for his big New York apartment, he quickly agrees to write a song for the pop princess and sing it as a duet with her for her new album. Only one problem; he doesn’t write lyrics, he writes the music. As he works with a lyricist provided by his agent (Brad Garrett), the new plant lady, Sophie (Drew Barrymore) arrives to water the plants. As the two men work on the song, Sophie starts making up her own lyrics, prompting Alex to ask her to help him. As they are on a tight deadline, they spend a lot of time together and grow closer, providing the music and lyrics for a new song that may become a hit.
“Music and Lyrics”, written and directed by Marc Lawrence (“Two Weeks Notice”, “Miss Congeniality”, enough said), uses a promising enough hook to bring the two actors together, but both actors have done better, so much better in other projects, this film is a let down.
The film starts promisingly, showing a music video the group Pop made in the mid 80s. The music video captures the feel and look of this era to a T, showing Alex (Grant) and Colin Thompson (Scott Porter) prancing around a sound stage with their band mechanically copying their moves. After this, we learn that Fletcher and Thompson parted ways in 1991, with Thompson moving on to a successful solo and movie career. Fletcher has struggled, so much so that he is now seriously considering participating in a reality show called “Battle of the 80s Has Beens”. His agent arrives at his big New York apartment and tells him he has received a request from the reigning pop princess, Cora. She is a fan of Fletcher’s and wants him to write a song for her new album, the only problem is the song needs to b completed by Friday.
So, let’s stop here for a moment. Every great fairy tale and fantasy has at least some basis in reality. And a good romantic comedy is at least a few parts fantasy. So, “Music and Lyrics” should have some basis in reality, right? If Alex Fletcher has struggled for so many years, playing at Knott’s Berry Farm and high school reunions, how has he managed to hold on to his big New York apartment, complete with grand piano and balcony? Yo may immediately assume that he is living off the money he made during his days of excess, in the 80s, but no, the film banishes that possibility.
From the moment Sophie enters his life, she is a whirlwind of words and movement. She nervously goes about watering the plants, talking, etc. Barrymore should really trademark this type of role, because she has played it so often. The idea s that she is initially so oft-putting to any potential mate, making it all the more cute when they realize she has potential and they fall in love. This also provides the “Meet Cute” moment which is required of any romantic comedy. See, she is filling in for the normal person who takes care of his plants.
When Alex realizes she can write lyrics, he asks her to help out and since they have very little time to compose the song, they have to spend a lot of time together, in his apartment. During this time, a romance blooms. Presumably. Both actors work very hard to create a spark, but nothing happens. The romance never appears.
After they finish the song, they present it to the pop princess, who will sing it at her concert at Madison Square Garden, the opening night of her new tour. This is the second part of the film that is pretty amusing, also because it is so dead on. Hayley Bennett does a great job of portraying, or maybe channeling is the right word, the spirit of Spears and all other pop princesses. Having recently found religion, her new tour is designed around a large Buddha on the stage. Of course, this doesn’t prevent her from wearing skimpy costumes and prancing around in sexually suggestive ways. She is also fond of spouting sayings she has recently learned, getting the meaning of the words completely wrong. Remember the old saying “A Little Education is a Dangerous Thing”? That is certainly true of Cora.
When she initially sings the new song by Alex and Sophie, she has given it a twist, making it more like all of her songs. Again, a nice touch. Cora is part of a large machine and if she does something different, the cogs in that machine will not get greased and everything will break down.
But inexplicably, she changes her mind and she and Alex perform a duet during her concert. It is pretty hard to believe that Cora’s core audience would be able to sit still through this ballad, but the filmmaker needs it as a way to tie up the story.
Grant has done some funny, truly memorable films and he has done some bad, equally hard to forget films. The key to a good Grant performance is that he is given a different character, with the self-deprecating remarks kept to a minimum. If he is allowed free reign, he starts to resemble a stand up comic going through his routine on stage. When his character has a harder edge (“About A Boy”), more complexity (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”), or is part of a larger ensemble cast (“Love Actually”), he is much ore successful. When he is center stage, playing the Hugh Grant character, the films usually seem hollow.
Drew Barrymore has also played her character more than a few times. As with Grant, writer / director Lawrence doesn’t give her a lot of unique personality. He seems content to let the two popular actors play themselves. Barrymore was so good in “Fever Pitch” and the characters are very similar. The difference is in “Pitch”, she had more of a backbone. She wasn’t content to let Jimmy Fallon’s character ignore her. In “Lyrics”, she pretty much follows Grant around like a little puppy dog.
What “Music and Lyrics” proves is that popular actors should not rely solely on their patented schtick. They should look for strong directors who are willing to add something new to their characters, take them in new directions. When this happens, we have a treat waiting for us on the big screen.
When it doesn’t happen, we have “Music and Lyrics.”