This is not a chick flick. Not really, even though it’s opening on Valentine’s Day. “Music and Lyrics” is a finely tuned romantic comedy, with a love story driving the plot, but character-driven laughs prevailing. It’s a very funny picture. The first-time director, Marc Lawrence, is a sharp writer who previously worked on not one but four Sandra Bullock movies. (Uh-oh.) But Lawrence takes full control here, and he has invigorated the traditional rom-com formula with a knowing, satirical take on the pop-music industry. (The script abounds with sly references to everything from Frankie Goes to Hollywood to pop-tart spirituality.) And his two leads, Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, hit every comic mark with gleeful expertise.
Grant, an actor of superb comic timing and limitless likeability, has possibly never been funnier than he is here. He plays Alex Fletcher, one-time keyboardist for an ’80s cute-guy band called PoP (think big shoulders, onstage shades and puffy pegged pants). When the group’s singer split to go solo (taking along some hits-to-be that Alex had a hand in writing), the British quintet broke up and Alex sank into obscurity. Now resident in Manhattan, he makes a living doing one-man nostalgia dates at venues like Knott’s Berry Farm, Great Adventure and 20-year high school reunions, and he’s given up any hope of ever making a comeback. “I’m a happy has-been,” he says. “It takes the pressure off.” His latest paycheck, in fact, is being provided by a TV show called “Battle of the ’80s Has-Beens” — not a musical competition, but a series of actual physical confrontations. (“That Debbie Gibson can really take a punch,” Alex says, admiringly.)
Then Alex receives a summons from Cora Corman (Haley Bennett), the reigning blond pop princess of the moment. She loves Alex’s old band, and she wants him to write a hit song for her. Nothing retro, though. (“I don’t live in the past,” she says with an iron smirk. “It’s so long ago.”) Alex’s loyal manager (Brad Garrett) is excited about this out-of-the-blue opportunity, but Alex himself is scared. Coming up with tunes has never been a problem, but he doesn’t write lyrics. Fortunately, at this crucial point, Sophie Fisher (Barrymore, adorable as always) comes bumbling into his life. Sophie is an aspiring writer who was taking short-story classes at the New School, where she fell into an affair with her teacher (Campbell Scott). This preening cad dumped her, then wrote a humiliating roman à clef about their relationship in which he portrayed her as a talentless drip. Sophie is feeling defeated; but when she tosses off a few lyrical ideas for Alex, he’s amazed: “You are Cole Porter in panties,” he says.
Alex and Sophie spend the night in his Upper East Side apartment, which is equipped with keyboards, guitars and Pro Tools software, and by dawn they’ve come up with a song. (The catchy pop tunes in the movie were written by Adam Schlesinger, of Fountains of Wayne.) They demo it, Cora loves it, and the songwriting team of Alex and Sophie is launched. There are some bumps in the road, of course — this is a romantic comedy — but in the end … well, I won’t spoil the non-surprise.
What makes the movie so enjoyable is its witty accretion of observational details. In a scene at a tacky amusement park, for example, where Alex is wheezily going through his old ’80s moves for an audience of middle-aged fans, he leeringly surveys the squealing ladies in front of the stage and purrs, with a shameless pelvic thrust, “Tell me, girls — are these pants too tight?” But the most richly satirical character is Cora, a hot little number with the serene facial expressiveness of a dinner plate. (I’d like to think that newcomer Bennett, who really can sing, is also actually acting in this part.) Visually, Cora suggests both Britney Spears and Jewel, with elements of self-importance inherited from Madonna. She likes being on top of the charts, and she wants to stay there. (“Shakira is breathing down my neck,” she hisses.) But she also wants to be perceived as a spiritual person, and so she has embraced what might, for want of a more precise term, be called the Wisdom of the East. (Typical concert greeting: “New York! I love you! Shanti! Shanti!”) Her stage set features an enormous revolving Buddha, out of the ass end of which Cora emerges in a monkish cloak, looking very devotional. Dry-ice fumes quickly well up, though, and a corps of backup dancers comes shimmying in, and in short order Cora has whipped off the cloak to reveal the tight satin shorts that are a more integral part of her image. We’ve met this person before on the pop scene, in various guises, and we keep meeting her over and over again.
The picture is anchored, however, by Grant and Barrymore, who have chemistry to burn — they’re completely believable as a couple who’ve discovered their highest natures in one another. They’re also actors who know how to swat well-turned lines back and forth. “That’s wonderfully sensitive for a man who wears such tight pants,” Sophie cracks. Says Alex: “It forces all the blood to my heart.” I know: Aww. … But the undeniable sweetness of the plot set-up is festooned with guy-friendly laughs, and lots of them. Chicks take note.
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