In Marc Lawrence's romantic comedy Music and Lyrics, an appealing pair of mismatched musical collaborators played by Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore briefly stray into the pop-song debate as to which is more important: the melody or the words.
It's one of those age-old arguments, such as smooth vs. crunchy or cats vs. dogs. Regarding their importance to pop songs, I've got to go with the music. Consider the lyric, "Wake me up before you go-go/Don't leave me hangin' on like a yo-yo." Alone they're just some rhyming doggerel, but the memory of the musical hook can transport you back to 1984 with remarkable efficiency.
Music and Lyrics doesn't linger long on the debate, and instead suggests that those musical components offer a metaphor for relationships. The melody is the initial attraction you find on meeting another person, while the lyrics stand for the deeper understanding that comes when you get to know them better. It's a fresh, sweet little point that Music and Lyrics could develop more deeply, but the film frequently tries too hard, cracking jokes when it could just let us listen to the characters.
Grant plays Alex Fisher, once part of a fictional, fondly remembered 1980s band called PoP that broke up when the frontman went on to better things. (It seems not unlike what happened to the other guy from Wham! when George Michael went solo.) The vintage music video for their hit "Pop Goes My Heart" takes delight in narrow ties, puffy shirts and black-and-white checkerboard patterns.
Though film and television usually show nothing but contempt for a celebrity below the D-list, Alex proves surprisingly comfortable with his niche as a retro mainstay at state fairs and class reunions. "I'm a happy has-been," he says. When it appears that Alex's tenuous popularity might be waning, he gets a call from Cora Corman (Haley Bennett), a Britney Spears/Shakira type who wants Alex to write a duet within the week, which could jump-start his career.
Director Lawrence stumbles through the film's complicated setup. Alex discovers that Sophie (Barrymore), the woman who waters his plants, turns out to be a natural lyricist, so he pressures her to help him write the song. When he tries to persuade her in his apartment hallway, the scene resembles the cheesy emoting from PoP's old video, but not deliberately so. Too often the dialogue emphasizes wheezy one-liners instead of sharp little exchanges about how songs such as "My Girl" make people happier than great books.
Despite a clichéd, artificial first act, the subsequent conflicts prove surprisingly natural. Alex and Sophie's romance comes from the intimacy and high emotions of the creative process, and not the same dating montage we've seen a zillion times already. Watching Alex record all the instrumental tracks of their song demo on his computer, or waiting to see Cora's response to the finished product, proves unexpectedly intriguing.
Music and Lyrics sets up a sharp contrast between two generations of popular music, and clearly favors PoP's Top-40 bubblegum over Cora's iPod-ready erotic posturing. Alex's act isn't exactly squeaky-clean, and he bumps and grinds in painfully tight pants to the delight of his aging fans. But Cora's underdressed, overproduced stage act seems at once dehumanized and overly sexual, and the film's concerned parents are right to be aghast.
The film further explores the dark side of making art in a subplot about Sophie's ex-boyfriend (Campbell Scott, always great as smart scumbags) who wrote an unflattering portrayal of her in his successful novel. She's too devastated by his cruel assessment to dismiss him as a jerk. "He's not a jerk! He's a National Book Award winner!" -- as if unaware that the two things need not be mutually exclusive. Music and Lyrics doesn't hide from the heartlessness of the entertainment business, and how perfectly nice people can be misused as either muses or creators.
Such complexities give Barrymore some welcome opportunities to show some acting range beyond her typical kooky-girl-next-door quality, which frequently leaves her looking stranded in, say, Adam Sandler comedies. The two principal comic-relief roles seem cast for their height and deadpan delivery: "Everybody Loves Raymond's" Brad Garrett as Alex's agent and "3rd Rock From the Sun's" Kristen Johnston as Sophie's sister. (Could one call Kristen Johnston the female Brad Garrett? Or vice versa?) Johnston proves especially funny and credible as a no-nonsense mom who turns into a gushing groupie whenever Alex gets mentioned.
Music and Lyrics marks the completion of a seemingly accidental trilogy of Hugh Grant films with musical undercurrents. In About a Boy, he played a rock music fan who lives off the royalties of his father's popular Christmas carol, despite his hatred of the tune. In American Dreamz, he played the acid-tongued, frustrated host of a thinly disguised version of "American Idol." With Music and Lyrics, he plays his third bachelor with hip musical tastes but also effectively imprisoned by the recording industry.
Perhaps the choices reflect Grant's attempt to stay hip as an actor, to keep starring in big romantic comedies while playing parts more complex than the stammering dreamboat-type who made him famous. And perhaps he succeeds in such roles not just because he's unthreatening and handsome, but because he mirrors how audiences in their 30s and 40s see themselves. Hey, we may not be the most confident people in the world, but we're reasonably smart, nice, musically with-it folks, too, aren't we?
Grant may not be the true face of his generation, just the one it chooses for itself.