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Music and Lyrics, a gentle, loping romantic comedy written and directed by Marc Lawrence, won my heart for what it didn't do: all the moments it could have strained for farce or confessional self-disclosure, and instead turned its attention back to the problem at hand. How do you write a hit song in just a few days with a virtual stranger for a songwriting partner? And how do you strike a balance between the commercial demands of the music industry and your own creative instincts, while falling in love at the same time?
It's a tough row to hoe, but being Hugh Grant helps. Grant, a once-irritating pretty boy who gets looser and funnier with every new role, plays Alex Fletcher, a once-famous singer for a Wham!-esque '80s band called PoP! (The film opens with a music video for their big hit, "Pop! Goes My Heart," complete with synthesizer solos, ruffled shirts, and crests of moussed hair.) Alex has slipped comfortably into the role of show-business has-been, performing his old hits on the state-fair circuit and politely declining appearances on reality TV. When pneumatic pop star Cora Corman (Haley Bennett) names Alex as her childhood idol and asks him to write a duet to sing with her at Madison Square Garden, he jumps at the chance to revive his career. The problem is, Alex is a music guy. He can't compose a decent lyric—hence the downhill slide since losing his PoP! partner, who's gone on to become a solo success.
In a meet-cute that's one of the movie's few contrived moments, Alex is banging away hopelessly at the piano when Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) shows up at his apartment to water his plants. Apparently, she's the replacement for his usual plant-waterer. Why anyone would hire a plant-waterer unless they were going out of town remains a mystery, but it's an excuse for Sophie to show up, flutter about fetchingly, and mumble some half-decent lyrics as she drowns the begonias.
Convinced that he's stumbled upon "Cole Porter in panties," Alex wheedles Sophie into collaborating on the song with him. What follows is, in essence, an hour and a half of musical banter as the two fall into movie love. Pulling up to the piano with a pad and pen, Sophie and Alex toy with a lyric called "Love Autopsy," then throw themselves into composing the song for Cora, "Way Back Into Love" (written in real life by Adam Schlesinger from the band Fountains of Wayne, who also wrote the title track for the pop-centric 1996 movie That Thing You Do!).
Like all good pop songs, Alex and Sophie's opus must be an effortless-sounding trifle that's actually the result of painstaking craft. And like all movies about people making art, Music and Lyrics has its dramatic work cut out for it. We have to believe not only in Alex and Sophie's creative process, but in the song they finally create. Since the entire conflict of the movie revolves around songwriting, "Way Back Into Love" can't just spring into being in one spontaneous jam session; it has to emerge piece by piece from the growing connection between the two leads.
If watching people gnaw on pencils and stare into space is not your idea of suspense, you may find Music and Lyrics slow going. The pace is meandering, with time out for so many performance scenes that the film feels like an old-fashioned backstage musical. But there are treats along the way: Campbell Scott as Sophie's arrogant ex-lover, Kristen Johnston as her big (in every sense) sister, and newcomer Haley Bennett in a role that neatly sidesteps the Britney-and-Madonna clichés of pop princessdom. Grant learned to play piano for the role and does his own singing in a light, whispery tenor. He also busts some sublimely dumb dance moves and seems to be enjoying himself hugely. Drew Barrymore would look adorable picking her nose in an overexposed Polaroid, but her role is oddly conceived. Some of Sophie's quirks, like hypochondria, seem to fade in and out of existence according to the demands of the plot, and the character's crucial turning point—the composition of a key last stanza for the central song—happens offscreen. But there's something so winning and open about Barrymore's face, as if she's always seeing E.T. for the first time. It's hard to imagine where Barrymore's career will go after this current romantic-lead phase. But then again, you could have said as much about Hugh Grant circa 1999, and now he's the closest thing we have to Cary Grant.
In a way, the collaboration at the heart of Music and Lyrics isn't between Alex and Sophie, or Barrymore and Grant—it's the romance between Marc Lawrence's script and Adam Schlesinger's music. Lawrence's respect for the song as pop artifact is as palpable as Schlesinger's affection for the movie's characters. In its early incarnations, "Way Back Into Love" feels wobbly and tentative, a bit generic. By the time Alex and Sophie record a demo tape together, it's decidedly catchy, and when the song is finally performed in public with that plot-altering final stanza, it has the aura of inevitability that surrounds a real hit song; it may not be the most original thing you've ever heard, but damned if you can keep from humming it all the way home.