With only mediocre ("Catch and Release
") and downright awful ("Because I Said So
," "Blood and Chocolate
") romances rearing their ugly heads thus far in 2007, the lovely "Music and Lyrics" does what it can to finally turn things around. Genuine and sincere without being sappy, conventional without being cloying or condescending, and very funny without having to fall back on predictable pratfalls and cakes in the face, the film is a consistently entertaining joy. A movie about adult characters connecting in a mature and believable way, all the while occasionally recalling vintage-era Woody Allen, writer-director Marc Lawrence's (2002's "Two Weeks Notice
") smart knowledge of the special ingredients that make up a successful love story aid in exposing just how artificial and contemptible streamlined trash like "Because I Said So
" really is.
A cheesily produced but admittedly catchy 1984 music video for the song "Pop! Goes My Heart" acts as introduction to Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a former pop idol who now supports himself by taking whatever performance gig he can find (most involve either an amusement park or a class reunion). With a humiliating offer to participate in a reality show about music has-beens duking it out in the boxing ring, a more enticing opportunity swoops down to save him in the form of rising pop princess Cora Corman (Haley Bennett). She wants him to write a song for her, to be called "Way Back Into Love," that she hopes to prepare in time for her concert at Madison Square Garden. Alex jumps at the chance, but with only a few days to compose the music and lyrics and create a demo, the pressure is on. Enter Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), a sweetly quirky working gal who waters Alex's plants. When he gets a taste of the talent she may possess as a potential lyricist, he persuades her to collaborate on the project with him.
Where "Music and Lyrics" goes isn't too surprising for anyone who has ever watched their fair share of romantic comedies, but how it gets to that destination is where the film stands out and sparkles. Hugh Grant (2002's "About a Boy
") and Drew Barrymore (2005's "Fever Pitch
") are as about as good as this genre gets, able to be light and comedic one moment and full of earnest pathos the next. Most important, they are charming and lovable, and the palpable chemistry they share is authentic rather than prefabricated. The viewer watches their characters of Alex and Sophie and grows to really care about them, both as complicated individuals with separate dreams and hang-ups, and as an ideal match who belong together.
Great actors can benefit a movie's outcome, but they cannot save it all by themselves. Fortunately this time, writer-director Marc Lawrence supports Hugh Grant's and Drew Barrymore's top-notch performances with a script that develops its characters as grown-ups rather than childrenthe opposite is a pitfall of way too many romances nowadaysand, even when certain situations and conflicts convey a ring of familiarity, treats them with a realistic hand. At first, the relationship between Alex and Sophie is solely a business partnership, and the gradual deeper affection they begin to feel for one another sprouts naturalistically out of their creative collaboration on a pop ballad. These scenes, as they brainstorm throughout all hours of the night, are endearing not only for the blossoming romance but for the inspiring depiction of what it takes to put a song together and get it just right.
The outcome of said song, paid off in two separate sequencesone in which Alex and Sophie lay down the demo track for the first time, and the other during the swoon-worthy concert climaxare well worth the wait; the song is just as good, if not better, than the majority of today's pop music. The other major original tune, a single from Alex's old band Pop!, is purely '80s, indeed, but it isn't an over-the-top joke; its cornball side is wholly of the decade and also is memorable and believable as a certifiable song that might have come out in 1984.
Although at least one formulaic moment would have done well to be excised (involving a possible move to Florida for one of the characters), for the most part the roadblocks that Alex and Sophie must climb are rooted in rational thought. There are no stupid misunderstandings or dishonesty between them, nor are there any extraneous characters added for the sole reason of getting between the central couple. Instead, and quite refreshingly, the main conflict they face is over the importance of artistic integrity. When Cora begins adding her own flair to the song Alex and Sophie have written, mucking it up with inappropriate Hindu melodies that destroy the simplicity and heart of their words, Sophie is determined to express her misgivings to Cora. Alex, meanwhile, is willing to let Cora ruin the song they have written in exchange for a career boost. The way in which this subplot is handled, as Sophie tries to get Alex to see the value in standing by your laurels and not compromising them, is adeptly written and a nice spin on the usual problems that screen characters usually face in this kind of movie.
Supporting Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore are a couple standout players. Perhaps best known for her long-running role in TV's "Third Rock from the Sun," Kristen Johnston (2006's "Strangers with Candy
") is a hilarious scene-stealer as Sophie's harried older sister Rhonda. The almost always annoying Brad Garrett (2005's "The Pacifier
") tones it down and gives a likably low-key turn as Alex's dedicated manager Chris Riley. And, as pop sensation Cora Corman, newcomer Haley Bennett is a radiant find who has fun with her role's initial caricaturization before running with the unexpected depth and sympathy that the part is injected with in the third act. Bennett also has an excellent singing voice, as she displays in the rousing duet finale with Hugh Grant.
"Music and Lyrics" isn't a motion picture that reinvents what cinema is about, and it isn't a motion picture that breaks ground from an originality standpoint. One key moment near the end, for example, is nearly identical to a scene from 1998's "The Wedding Singer," also starring Barrymore. Additionally, the tone is airy and the film doesn't demand a whole lot from the viewer. And yet, that is exactly the key to why "Music and Lyrics" is so very good, as it uses a basic plot that has been seen countless times before and then either diverts expectations or injects the proceedings with a savvy intelligence that makes the clichés feel fresh again. The movie is as sweet as apple pie without getting as syrupy as Mrs. Butterworth, and the charisma between Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore is delightful to see grow and take shape as the story progresses. Never pandering, "Music and Lyrics" is a beguiling, witty and truly romantic date flick that will assuredly please both sexes.