Music and Lyrics opens with Hugh Grant, airbrushed into a creamy visage, prancing about in a Simon Lebon hey-day Europop music video, decked out in a skintight white jumpsuit, three yards of black scarf, and a soaring wave of bangs. Long split with his more successful partner (a “Sir” something or another) in the duo “PoP,” he’s considering an offer to appear on “Battle of the 80’s Has-Beens”—which, as it turns out, is actual combat, featuring bubblegum luminaries like Tiffany and Debbie Gibson in fisticuffs. Grant’s character, Alex Fletcher, still considers himself a songwriter and, if we stretch the term like an overchewed stick of gum, an artist. He turns down the network and his agent: The exposure would be too humiliating.
Basically, the movie imagines Hugh Grant if he were Andrew Ridgely, overlayed onto boilerplate romantic comedy. The Spriteful Muse is Drew Barrymore as Sophie Fisher, whose hidden talent is to breathe in a catchy tune and exhale appropriate pop lyrics. Sophie literally stumbles into Alex’s apartment to water his plants—and into his life. It’s not just Alex’s plants that need watering, you see: The seeds of Alex’s songwriting need the nurturing of a sweet and adorable free spirit to flower into fetching and lucrative pop songs.
The movie breezes through this set-up in a pleasant opening twenty minutes. We’ve got two agreeable screen personalities locked and loaded, playing themselves in a script with pithy one-liners designed to let Stars Be Stars. Alex is commissioned by uberdiva Cora, a sex-dancing, pseudo-spiritual Shakira clone, to write her a song (Cora’s spirituality can best be described as Thong Buddhism, her idol worship expressed in her devotion to PoP!). Hugh Grant, as Alex, is handcuffed by his own narcissism, too tangled up in self-loathing to pound out a sappy love song. Drew Barrymore breezes through his apartment armed with cutesy motormouth dialogue and plenty of household objects to stumble over (she pricks her finger on a cactus, falls over an ottoman). Sophie dumps a watering pail, and the light bulb flicks on: While cleaning up the mess and listening to Alex’s melodies, she effortlessly conjures pop lyrics as if they write themselves.
For the most part, they do. Music and Lyrics embraces its romantic comedy-ness—a modest, happy goal, and certainly one that has its place in the multiplex landscape. Still, this movie seems to have more on its mind: Like Alex Fletcher, it has artistic pretensions but is bound by genre, eventually justifying itself by saying, “Hey, how can a movie be wrong if it makes you happy?” In other words, Music and Lyrics gleefully posits itself as the aesthetic equivalent of a pop song, but then wants to be taken seriously as a critique of high art’s criticism of pop culture. Rather than a cupcake, it wants to be a gourmet souflee of romantic comedy.
That takes a lot of skilled meta-writing and artistic sense, something like Sofia Coppola’s confectionary Marie Antoinette. But Music and Lyrics is too busy being a boilerplate romantic comedy to be much more than a bonbon. Take this sideplot: We find out that Sophie was, believe it or not, a writer back in college. She had an affair with her professor, a real author of Important Literature, who also happens to be, surprise, a complete smug asshole. Or as Sophie tries to justify him, “He’s a National Book Award winner. He’s not a jerk.” This “serious” author Sloan Cates is offered to us as an object of scorn, complete with a tweed suit and horn-rimmed glasses, embodied by the serious actor Campbell Scott. Turns out he turned their affair into a book (which involves the literal unpacking of baggage as a theme), and then discards her from his life. See, Serious Literature makes you sad, while “Pop! Goes My Heart” makes you happy. Look at Campbell Scott in his blue suit and Hugh Grant in his stylishly mussed hair and shirt unbuttoned to his breastbone, and ask yourself, who would you rather go with to the movies?
Real relationships are hard, and they’re hard to write about, too. Perhaps that’s why Alex and Sophie’s relationship is so buoyantly platonic. We see their creative process as a series of silly skits on the wackiness of study breaks. When they finally do consummate the partnership, it comes off as inevitable, like a trip to Cold Stone Creamery at the end of a movie date. There’s no real danger, here. Hugh Grant does his self-loathing narcissist routine, but no one really calls Alex on his bullshit. Sophie is all about the songs; she ushers him through humiliations (the only drug Alex needs to get through a high school reunion concert is, despite his humorously aching lower back, is the adoring smile of his songwriting partner) so they can get to the important business of writing the perfect song.
After all the romantic comedy mechanics have steered us to the grand finale, the movie gets defensive about itself. It starts as a joke—Cora wants Alex to perform his song at her concert, so Sophie manages to put herself back together after a fight with Alex (though we have no doubt she’ll go) to bring her nieces to the show. Thousands of dutiful, oblivious parents escort their tweener daughters to a Cora concert, only to have their (the parents’) innocence shattered at the horror of Cora’s skanky, Showgirls act. What did they expect, the Mickey Mouse Club? Their shock at the rumpshaking is a confession: When Paris Hilton ends up on the cover of Teen People, we really haven’t been monitoring our children’s role models closely enough.
A nice joke, if a bit creepy—Cora’s act is a lot racier than the tone of his film. If Music and Lyrics wanted to test its PG-13, perhaps more intimacy between Alex and Sophie might have given more texture to their relationship (perhaps a contrast of the sunshine of Drew Barrymore and the tight wrinkles of Hugh Grant would complicate our notions of their relationship). Still, this climax actually brings Music and Lyrics’ true intent into sharper focus: In the tradition of Walt Whitman, Music and Lyrics celebrates itself.
Music and Lyrics ruminates on the value and merit of pop culture (“It’s poetry,” declares the fiction writer-cum-plant-waterer-cum-pop-lyricist), extrapolating its own cuteness to desperately to justify itself. Music and Lyrics carps on Cora as a values statement: This movie may be a little ditty, but at least we’re not Dirrrty. It’s this celebration of banality that undermines the movie. By celebrating the pop song aesthetic of the romantic comedy, the film engages in a kind of narcissism, claiming a moral high ground by being “cute.” But there’s a difference between “traditional values” and “boilerplate plotting”: Poor Drew Barrymore has to stand in the aisle while thousands look on adoringly, cast literally in a spotlight, as Hugh Grant sings her a bland song about how blandly wonderful she is. Cut to middle aged moms in the audience, looking jealous and admiring.
What’s worse is that, as the movie celebrates its own slightness, it squanders an opportunity to explore the male icon of the romantic comedy. Since Notting Hill, Hugh Grant has taken increasingly darker roles. He’s always seemed to hate himself, as if he can’t stand that people think he’s charming. Grant is resigned to the fact that, even if he’s busted with a prostitute, women are going to fawn over his natural movie star qualities.
In About a Boy, Grant’s character described “Island Living,” an apt description of the self-absorbed male-magazine persona he’s always played. But in that movie, he wasn’t a charming dreamboat—he was the boy who never grew up. In Two Weeks Notice (also written and directed by Marc Lawrence), he’s an asshole lawyer. His role in the Bridget Jones movies is to be the guy we don’t want her to fall for. Grant tried for the full deconstruction by playing a cynical Simon Cowell inspired tv host in American Dreamz, but the movie didn’t give him enough to work with. This movie seems only to reconfirm the notion that Hugh Grant hates that he’s a romantic comedy star.
Hugh Grant makes romantic comedy one-liners seem so effortless, and it just might be that after years of turning crappy one-liners into Hollywood magic, it actually is effortless—like Michael Jordan making free throws with his eyes closed. Consider the exchange featured in the commercial for the movie.
Sophie: "That's wonderfully sensitive, Alex. Especially for someone who wears such tight pants."
Alex: "It forces all the blood to my heart.”
Grant turns the humor of the exchange into both a buffer of emotion and an endearing cry for intimacy. His disconnect and connection with both Drew Barrymore and the audience is displayed in a single line. It’s second nature to him. Perhaps this is why he’s lost interest in acting.
Music and Lyrics unwittingly stumbles onto the perfect metaphor for Hugh Grant. Alex, the fading pop star, overcomes his self-loathing to perform his schtick at an amusement park mini-stage. The camera rises over a tilt-whirl, swooping down to capture the girlish shrieks of middle-aged women in tasteful sweaters, fawning over Hugh Grant’s tight pants. Grant has begged us to hate him for years, but no one’s taken the bait. He forces it out one more time, and then turns to the curtain. The camera rises slowly to capture people eating cotton candy, and then a ferris wheel in the background. Hugh Grant has finally decided he’s had enough.