A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

MUSIC AND LYRICS jjj
½ 

2007, PG-13, 110 mins.

Alex Fletcher: Hugh Grant / Sophie Fisher: Drew Barrymore / Chris Riley: Brad Garrett / Rhonda Fisher: Kristen Johnston / Cora Corman: Haley Bennett

Written and directed by Marc Lawrence 

 

At one point in his life, Alex Fletcher was a member of one of the biggest selling musical groups of its time.  He was in a hugely popular pop band named PoP that had a number one hit pop single called “Pop Goes My Heart.”  At their height the group sold 20 million records, during which time the lead singer stated that they were “bigger than The Beatles.”  However, Alex is quick to point out that his lead singer meant that literally: there were 5 members of Pop compared to 4 in the Fab Four.

The comedic heart to MUSIC AND LYRICS, a wonderful new romantic comedy, is Hugh Grant, who plays Alex at a point in his career where he has hit nearly rock bottom.  PoP was a smash in the mid 1980’s to early 1990’s, but when the group’s lead singer abandoned them to forge a widely successful solo career, the rest of the gang suffered greatly.  Tight pants, cheesy lyrics, and rear ends endlessly shaking simply do not sell albums in our more nihilistic times.  Alex is now just a laughable byproduct of a yesteryear.

As a matter of fact, he is in such rough shape that he even has a gig at Knott’s Berry Farm cancelled.  He does, however, get an invite to a TV network that wants to pitch him a new idea for a realty show called Battle of the 1980’s Has-Beens.  Alex seems to greet the concept with enthusiasm and asks the suits what he should sing on the pilot episode.  Dumbfounded, the executives tell him, “No, Alex…the all of the Has Beens box one another and the winner gets to sing at the end.”  Alex pitifully responds, “Right…I see.  I bet that Debbie Gibson can sure take a punch.”

Grant is the absolute master of droll, witty, underplayed, and self deprecating humor, and it is his willingness to play Alex with intelligence and goofiness that makes MUSIC AND LYRICS reinforce his status as one of the kings of the genre.  After some serious comedic misfires – lack 2006’s categorically awful AMERICAN DREAMZ – Grant is back in sure-fire, hilarious form that harkens back to his great performances in past romantic films like LOVE ACTUALLY, ABOUT A BOY, NOTTING HILL, and FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL.  The amazing thing about Grant is in his effortless charm, wit and snappiness he brings to his dialogue.  Yes, it could be said that this is Grant on autopilot here, but critics are too quick to shun him for what he continually does and forget to credit him for how well he does it.  John Wayne made the Western, and in many ways, Grant makes the modern romantic comedy. 

He’s not afraid to look simultaneously smart and dumb, the latter as demonstrated in the utterly side-splitting and totally spot-on music video for "Pop Goes My Heart", which bares a striking resemblance many Wham videos, both in choice of lyrics and dance moves.  The strobe-induced camera work, the spirited and light-as-a-feather lyrics, and the choreography are hilariously true-to-life.  Beyond the physical comedy, Grant still has time to come forth and let out some of his dry, trademark zingers.  Consider one passage that - with another lesser comedic actor - would never hit the right comic note:

Pop Singer:

Come and see my roof.  It’s upstairs.

 

Alex:

(after seeing it)

I really like your roof.  It’s good that it is upstairs.

Grant’s abilities to garner chuckles at the most innocuous of dialogue is in full form here, and MUSIC AND LYRICS is funnier than the norm because of the intelligence it displays in the dialogue and exchanges.  At the the film's epicenter lay Grant’s charismatic self-loathing.  The way he subtly jabs at himself and those around him reveals how his strengths as a comedic actor often fly under the radar.  His agreeably sarcastic performance in this film and his other successful romantic films kind of illicit suitable comparisons to the best genre films that Gary Grant did.  Hey...they both have the same last names!  I'm on to something here....

On top of Grant’s natural and unmatched comic timing and precision, MUSIC AND LYRICS is a sweet and bubbly romance.  It follows the generic staple elements of these types of formula pictures, but the manner it puts all of those stock elements together is done exceedingly well.  To chastise the film for being pedestrian and routine kind of misses the point.  Yes, the film is predictable and, yes, one can easily surmise exactly where it’s heading at any given vantage point, but it’s the film’s journey that makes it pleasurable. 

The film wisely avoids unnecessary slapstick (which many modern films like this try too hard to aim for) and instead lets the likeable lead actors and their chemistry generate more natural laughs.  MUSIC AND LYRICS commands chuckles in just the right dosages without overdoing it too much, and the film balances off those moments with scenes of light drama that give weight to the characters.  Most importantly, the film gives us two people that we like and want to see together, despite all of their faults.  When great romantic comedies click on these levels – as MUSIC AND LYRICS does – they can be great entertainments.

The film has the obligatorical meet cute.  But before that, Alex and his agent, Chris Riley (the very funny in modest dosages Brad Garret) try to find a job for his falling star status.  Now that he is approaching middle age, Alex finds that he just can’t hit that target teen demographic like he used to.  Well, he's still a hit with 40-plus women that were swooning teens in the 80's, but they just don't seem to buy up albums anymore.  His only solo effort was a miraculous flop (only 50,000 ever sold, with most of them being purchased by his mother) and now the only thing he can get is amusement parks playing for geriatrics.  Within no time, Alex gets a possible career-rejuvenating job.  He is asked to pen a new song for Cora (Haley Bennett), who is an obvious clone from half of the DNA of Shakira and half from Brittany Spears.  She is a gigantic international star, but she worshiped Alex when she was young.  She hopes that he'll write a duet song for the both of them within a few days.  No problem, but Alex has issues.  He can certainly write melodies, but stinks at lyrics.  If only someone can help him…?

Enter cute and sassy Sophie (played well by Drew Barrymore) who comes to Alex’s apartment to…take care of his plants.  Why can’t Alex water his own plants?  I dunno.  It does not matter.  Anyhoo’, as Alex struggles at the piano he begins to notice something truly astonishing about Sophie: she’s a natural born lyricist and is incredibly gifted at poetry.  After some pesky coaxing on his part, Alex manages to convince her to become his partner on what he sees as a somewhat insurmountable task of coming up with a new hit song in only a few days.

Despite a few hiccups along the way, Alex and Sophia get really acquainted with one another and start to hammer out the song.  Along the way the film manages to have some real insight into the process of the art and craft of music and song writing, not to mention the fact that it infuses some commentary on the nature of contemporary music as a whole.  Alex represents old-school Top-40 fluff and feels like he’s not equal to the task of creating a new song.  Sophie inspires in him confidence. 

They have soulful and meaningful conversations about past artists that they love, like Smokey Robinson, and they both begin to understand that the key to writing a hit song is to not try too hard.  If you think about making a huge hit, then the song will loose its passion and soul and become just another forgettable chart topper.  The film is sort of revealing in how the writer’s craft is often undermined in the lights and glamour spectacle of the stars that perform the songs.  Cora sharply represents the polar opposite of Alex and Sophie in the sense that she cares little about the craft and is nothing more than a preening media whore.  Her biggest concern is not so much the lyrics, but the fact that “Shakira is riding up” her behind in the charts.  All she needs is a new single to dance and shake her scantily clad body to.

Alex and Sophie do care about quality, and they even go so far to test the song numerous times to the apartment doorman, who gets a huge laugh when he finally tells to two, "You know...I'm tone deaf, but I'm sure it sounds great."  When the two finally concoct their song, it's surprisingly good, but in the hands of Cora, it predictably becomes something seedy and unsavory.  She wants to spice it up a bit with her beyond-obvious sexuality on stage, and her efforts to take everything that Alex and Sophie slaved away at says a lot about the forces in the modern music industry.  It also leads to some of the film’s best lines.  After Sophie sees and hears what Cora has done to their work, she sardonically blurts out to Alex, “Are you trying to tell me that you enjoyed that orgasm set to the GANDHI Soundtrack?”

Again, MUSIC AND LYRICS is readily predictable.  We know that the two will fall for one another despite their inherent differences.  Alex is a pop has-been and Sophie, at first, has no idea how big of a star he was.  The two will also have emotional baggage that they have to shift through, which leads to a heartrending break-up and then to the requisite moment where the male takes a prideful stance to get back the woman he really loves.  The plot is fairly preordained, but the real strong aspects of the film is in its two appealing leads, the daft and quietly amusing banter between the two, and the sharp and sly wit that permeates many moments of the film.  Like a great recent romantic comedy, FEVER PITCH (also starring Barrymore) MUSIC AND LYRICS engages in a commendable balancing act between generating strong laughs with hearty sentiment, along with something meaningful to say about song writing.  On top of that, the overall tone of the film is pitch perfect.  Nothing is hammered over our heads to the point of being overwhelming. 

Most crucially, just about everyone here is funny and endearing.  Grant pulls out all the stops - as expected - to be as casually charming and silly as only he can muster, and Drew Barrymore is also very effective here at doing what she does best: being effortlessly cute and adorable without milking it too much.  Even the supporting characters get a lot of comic mileage, such as  Kristen Johnston (from TV's Third Rock From the Sun) as Sophie’s sister and Alex’s biggest all-time fan.  When she discovers that her sister is working with a singer she worshiped as a teen, her giddy and orgasmic excitement reaches such a boiling point that you’d swear she was going to suffocate from hyperventilation.

Writer/director Marc Lawrence, who made some hit or miss romantic comedies like MISS CONGENIALITY and TWO WEEKS NOTICE, makes MUSIC AND LYRICS such a winning, funny, and joyful genre film that it ends up rising far above the level of disposable entertainment.  The film is wickedly droll, terrifically agreeable, and spirited, but it also grounds its characters realistically and gives them real feelings and moments of insight.  Neither too sugar coated and saccharine with its drama nor too bold and outlandish with its comedy, MUSIC AND LYRICS understands how to do a routine formula picture just right.  During a time where romantic comedies have nauseatingly inane premises (like FAILURE TO LAUNCH) this film reminds me of the simple pleasure of seeing two immanently likeable people meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after.  As a warm-hearted, cheerful, and catchy diversion at the cineplexes, MUSIC AND LYRICS has surprising harmony.  And not only that, but Hugh Grant yet again reminds us of his superb timing and limitless amiability…just like another famous Grant.

  H O M E