February 20, 2007

MOVIES: Music and Lyrics (Marc Lawrence, 2007)

OK, admittedly this movie is absolutely formulaic and predictable at every step. But when the formula is applied with this much charm and lively humor, even the old "boy gets/loses/regains girl" story can still be a lot of fun to watch.

Hugh Grant stars as Alex, who used to be half of 80s pop band PoP! His partner went on to great solo success, but Alex scrapes along by doing gigs at state fairs and theme parks; so desperate is Alex that he's thrilled when he's invited to take in a reality TV "Battle of the 80s Has-Beens." (We are invited, about as blatantly as possible without actually using the names, to think of Andrew Ridgely and Wham!)

Alex is approached by Cora Corman (Haley Bennett), who is "bigger than Britney and Christina combined;" she's a big fan, and asks him to write her a new song by the end of the week. Alex, who's only ever written music, is in desperate need of a lyricist; when he discovers that Sophie (Drew Barrymore), the woman who waters his plants, has a natural gift for writing lyrics, he begs her to work with him.

(About this: Do rich people actually hire people to water their plants? And even if they do, wouldn't they put the plant-watering people on hold when they're actually at home? And even if we buy all of that, Alex is supposed to be a struggling musician, not someone rich enough to throw money away on plant-watering services. But I digress...)

Anyway, you can already see where this is going, but Grant and Barrymore are, both individually and as a team, utterly charming, and the movie is written with a bit more intelligence than most of the romantic comedies that Hollywood shovels at us these days. Bennett is very funny as the pop diva who wants to be spiritual and sexy at the same time, and the rest of the supporting cast is also fine, led by Kristen Johnston as Sophie's older sister and Campbell Scott as Sophie's novelist ex. Heck, even Brad Garrett, as Alex's manager, is surprisingly non-annoying.

There comes a point in any movie of this sort where an obstacle arises to keep the lead couple apart, and it's usually so artificial and silly that we have to bite our lips and choke down our "that's absurd" reflexes in order to make it to the happy reconciliation at the end. But in this movie, the obstacle comes out of Alex and Sophie's relationship (both personal and professional); it's plausible and convincing, and that gives the hurtful things they say in their big argument some real impact.

Best of all is the music. Grant, Barrymore, and Bennett do their own singing, and they have been provided with songs by Adam Schlesinger, from Fountains of Wayne, which are perfectly written in the fluffy pop styles of today (Cora's material) and of 20 years ago (PoP!'s songs). They are catchy and instantly memorable, so much so that everyone was humming them in the men's room after the movie. (Schlesinger pulled off the same trick with the title song for That Thing You Do a few years back.)

There's a moment in the movie when Alex is feeling particularly fed-up with what his career has become, and with having to sing these same songs over and over again, and Sophie gives him a pep talk that is a defense of the well-crafted pop song. These songs remind us of people, places, lovers we have known, she tells him; they make people happy, and isn't that worth celebrating? The speech could equally well apply to Music and Lyrics; sure, it's lightweight fluff, but it's done with great skill and warmth, and it made me happy.

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