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It had to be Hugh 

click to enlarge Pity the B-list guy dancing behind Hugh Grant, A-list sex - icon.
  • Pity the B-list guy dancing behind Hugh Grant, A-list sex icon.

*Music and Lyrics (PG-13)

Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Alex Fletcher used to be A-list. As co-frontman of a 1980s hit machine called PoP! think of him as the Andrew Ridgeley in this particular riff on Wham! he knew what it was like to be a guy the ladies all dreamed about. But the entertainment business is fickle, and when PoP! broke up, he was left with a catalog of once-beloved works and gigs playing class reunions and amusement parks. In his mid-40s, Alex Fletcher is a walking, talking trivia question.

Don't think the parallel is lost on Hugh Grant. In his stammering, floppy-haired mid-1990s heyday, Grant owned the role of the self-effacing romantic comedy hero. But he has worked only sporadically since the turn of the century; in Music and Lyrics, he's returning to the rom-com genre for the first time since 2002's Two Weeks Notice (also by writer-director Marc Lawrence). And with a knowing performance, Grant proves he's more than that guy who used to be charming.

He certainly has a livelier career than Alex, the kind of celebrity seemingly content to do reality shows. Yet Fletcher gets an improbable shot at a comeback when teen diva Cora Corman (Haley Bennett) proclaims she's a fan, and wants Alex to write her a new single. Unfortunately, Alex is convinced that he's only any good at writing melodies and he's so desperate for a lyricist to land him the assignment that he enlists the assistance of his new plant-caretaker, Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), when she spouts some impromptu poetry.

Lawrence does some surprisingly effective work with the concept. He opens with a terrific faux video for PoP!'s breakout hit that manages not just to nail the visual style of 1984-era MTV clips, but to be a catchy enough tune that it's completely convincing as a No. 1 single. He also takes the role of the Britney-esque pop princess slightly off-center, with Haley Bennett's Cora more about big-hearted immaturity than self-absorbed ditziness.

What he does best, however, is give his dialogue an unexpected crackle. The best romantic comedies, like When Harry Met Sally, have understood that the genre depends on people snapping off witticisms you'd never think to say, and at a faster pace than you'd ever think to say them. And while Music and Lyrics certainly doesn't approach that classic territory, it comes from that place of heightened reality where people always seem to know the most clever and romantic remark for any given moment.

Like this self-deprecating winner from Alex after he compliments Sophie: "It's because my pants are so tight that they force all the blood to my heart." It's hard to imagine many actors who could pull off that line, and that's why Grant is so priceless. He's graduated from the nervous tics that made his early screen characters occasionally too much to take, yet he still has his way with a one-liner.

Music and Lyrics might have headed closer to classic territory if Lawrence could have masked more of Barrymore's shortcomings. She's a winning screen personality with a radiant smile, but she's never shown the chops to create a real, complex character. Sophie's own insecurities are stated but never fully felt.

Fortunately, Grant can carry most of the pair's weight. The hair's a bit shorter, and there are a few more wrinkles crowded around the eyes, but when it comes to providing the charm that energizes a romantic comedy, he still knows how to make it pop.

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