3 stars (out of four)
Grant plays Alex Fletcher, the second-best-known member of a Reagan-era band called PoP. Fifteen years after the band's dissolution, Alex lives the single life in New York City, writing the occasional song, cashing the odd royalty check and trotting out his retro act, complete with pelvic bumps, for high school reunions and theme park patrons.
While Grant is a long way from playing Knott's Berry Farm himself, surely he can relate. The actor with the brittle, slightly tense brand of charisma and narrow but reliably effective comic range has done his thing, gamely, in many romantic comedies less wonderful than the one that made him a star, 1994's "Four Weddings and a Funeral."
Marc Lawrence wrote and directed one of the OK ones, "Two Weeks Notice," and he has reteamed with Grant for "Music and Lyrics." It would be impossible to diagram why "Notice" (which co-starred Sandra Bullock, another romantic comedy machine) didn't quite work and this one does, since they're equally formulaic. But here the formula satisfies. Lawrence doesn't overelaborate or gussy up the story. And his leading characters don't spend the entire film bickering.
It's not as if we expect the moon from a rom-com. Thanks to endurance tests such as "Failure to Launch" and "Because I Said So," lately it's achievement enough just to provide your stars with some latitude and a decent comeback or two.
Here Grant has an able partner in Drew Barrymore, who plays Sophie Fisher. She shows up at Alex's apartment one day, substituting for his regular plant lady. Alex has less than two days to find a lyricist so that he can write a hit single commissioned by a Christina Aguilera-type superstar (Haley Bennett, missing some comic opportunities, but she's young yet). Sooner than you can say "Cole Porter in panties!"--which Alex does say at one point--composer and newfound lyricist are slaving away at the piano. Then sex threatens to upend their newfound partnership.
One suspects writer-director Lawrence's heart belongs to Broadway and Hollywood of the late '50s and early '60s, when commodities in the vein of "Sunday in New York" handed ready-to-wear roles to folks such as Jane Fonda and Rod Taylor. There's a scene early in "Music and Lyrics" in which Grant and Brad Garrett, playing dutiful straight man as Alex's manager, trade exposition in his apartment, along with budding lyricist Sophie.
It comes as close to mid-'50s Broadway stagecraft as an early 21st Century movie can without turning into pure "Down With Love" irony.
Grant and Barrymore are very enjoyable together onscreen. Who would've guessed that Barrymore would turn into such a deft comedian? With her lantern jaw and slightly disarrayed features, she's a particular sort of cute--yet she has learned not to coast on her adorability, or how she comes off in reaction shots. Even when you don't buy the story details in "Music and Lyrics," you appreciate that Barrymore and Grant play well together, and that Lawrence lets some of the scenes go on a bit longer, and more interestingly, than most films of this type generally do.
Kristen Johnston plays Sophie's sister, who runs the family weight-loss clinics, and the sister relationship actually feels plausible. Campbell Scott has a couple of effective scenes as Sophie's former professor and ex-lover, who has written a novel in which Sophie is a disguised but leading character.
"Way Back Into Love," the song Alex and Sophie write together, recurs throughout "Music and Lyrics," and it's too bad it isn't more than just a pleasantly drippy ballad. Then again, for some of us theme songs in the genre of featherweight Manhattan love stories peaked back in 1963, when Mel Torme sang about lovers meeting each other by chance (and by authorial arrangement) in "Sunday in New York." Grant does well by the '80s song stylings, however. Light, sweet and agreeably confident, his voice is like the movie itself.
'Music and Lyrics'
Written and directed by Marc Lawrence; cinematography by Xavier Perez Grobet; edited by Susan E. Morse; production design by Jane Musky; music by Adam Schlesinger; produced by Martin Shafer and Liz Glotzer. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content).
Alex Fletcher - Hugh Grant
Sophie Fisher - Drew Barrymore
Chris Riley - Brad Garrett
Rhonda - Kristen Johnston
Sloan Cates - Campbell Scott
Cora Corman - Haley Bennett