Music and Lyrics lies somewhere near the top of a pile of middling romantic comedies released in the mid-late noughties, a period marked by bland films and storylines of no significance. Straddling a divide between romcoms of the Richard Curtis-Hugh Grant vein popular a decade earlier and slightly offbeat indie romances à la Once and 500 Days of Summer, it struggles to find a balance between the two and ends up erring on the side of convention.
At least the movie, about a forgotten eighties pop star and a marginally employed writer who try to pen a song for a teen idol, doesn’t rush to pair up its lead characters. It allows the story ample breathing room and is more meditative than expected. Alex Fletcher (Grant) and Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) confine their early relationship to creative endeavors; he pokes out the tune while she puts her English degree to work by writing lyrics. The tedium of songwriting forces a slower pace and eliminates some of the frenetic plot devices usually employed to build tension. Rather than a string of slapstick mishaps that keep the couple apart or at each other’s throats, they’re content with mulling over rhymes or strolling under the stars when they draw a blank.
As a result, Alex and Sophie get twenty minutes of uninterrupted face time, an unconventional stretch that Grant and Barrymore handle well. Grant, who is always playing some amalgamation of his past roles, gives his character the fundamental decency of Will Thacker and PM David (not the Cameron variety) plus a healthy dose of Daniel Cleaver and Will Freeman-style cynicism. Alex is frustrated that he’s headlining high school reunions and an occasional gig at Knott’s Berry Farm, unlike his former bandmate (Scott Porter) who’s been knighted by the queen, but he’s still willing to work hard enough to earn some respectability in the business. Barrymore doesn’t need to dig deep to find Sophie either, a loveable if slightly scatterbrained woman smarting from an affair with her English professor (Campbell Scott). She’s trying to recover from the fact that he wrote a novel based on their relationship, and won a National Book Award for it. Envious of his career, she sneers at her new writing assignment but becomes attached when pop star Cora (Haley Bennett) turns the ballad into a sexy, sweaty dance track that would make Britney Spears blush.
There’s a willing discomfort, an unease between Alex and Sophie due to their own disappointments in life and then later because of artistic differences. It’s as if the movie is shying away from comedy and more towards romance, the independent, talky sort. But despite philosophical tracts on music and writing, the filmmakers’ commercial instincts kick in and pull the movie back towards the mainstream. The physical comedy can be intrusive, like when Sophie spots her former lover at a restaurant and tries to shimmy her way to the toilet unnoticed. These moments betray a lack of confidence in the story. There’s no need for this kind of lifeline because the relationship between the two characters is enough.
“PoP Goes My Heart” by PoP (Hugh Grant and Scott Porter):
“Way Back Into Love” by Haley Bennett and Hugh Grant:
Prod: Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer
Dir: Marc Lawrence
Writer: Marc Lawrence
Cast: Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Brad Garrett, Kristen Johnston, Haley Bennett, Campbell Scott, Scott Porter, Matthew Morrison, Aasif Mandvi
Time: 96 min
Country: United States