Writer/director Marc Lawrence tries his best to turn “Music and Lyrics” into a stifling romantic comedy experience. Thank heavens Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore resist the urge to follow his lead, and employ a sharp amount of charisma to boost this limp retro comedy. “Music and Lyrics” does nail down one marvelous detail: the retro song. Opening the film is a video from the mid-80s, and it sparkles and bops just like the best tunes of the era. Though the accompanying video isn’t nearly as carefully planned out, the song gives hope that someone was paying attention in the production. It’s almost a shame an actual film has to follow it.
Alex (Hugh Grant) is a former member of the 80s band Pop!, and hungry for second chance at stardom. Playing fairs and amusement parks, Alex gets another stab at glory when teen pop star Cora (Haley Bennett) requests his help to come up with a hit tune for her. Alex finds unexpected inspiration in Sophie (Drew Barrymore), a mousy woman with a knack for lyrics, and together, Alex and Sophie embark on a bumpy collaboration that draws them closer in ways they couldn’t expect.
“Music and Lyrics” keeps walking away from writer/director Marc Lawrence. It’s a robotic production, pulled together from the spare parts of other romantic comedies, but it has the faint heat of a personality under all the sticky artifice; an individuality that, when allowed to be explored, works rather well. Unfortunately, Lawrence doesn’t appear as interested in that personality and steamrolls over the film with a story that bears no weight and even less consequence.
The charm of “Music” is held completely in the arms of the leads, Barrymore and Grant. When they improv, the results are predictable, and when Lawrence binds them with the plot, they turn on autopilot. The melody of the film is found between scenes, where Barrymore and Grant aren’t forcing themselves into roles or inane banter, but coasting on each other’s charisma and sneaking in a rapport with the audience that eludes Lawrence’s grand design.
The two share unexpected chemistry, even with a 15-year age difference (it shows), and they play off the script’s weak spots well. You have to remember that Lawrence has spent of most his career trying to make Sandra Bullock appear hilarious (the “Miss Congeniality” films, “Two Weeks Notice”). It’s poisoned his blood and blurred his vision. Lawrence writes the same level of shtick here in “Music,” feeling around the script for a way to pair these two up in as cheeseball a way as he can find, when, in fact, Barrymore and Grant work on the same equation in their own special way and have a much easier go at it.
Much of the appeal of “Music” can only be found if you mentally block out Brad Garrett’s annoying supporting work as Alex’s agent, and Lawrence beating character growth into the film that doesn’t need to be there; Sophie’s dealings with her ex, a best selling and quite lecherous author (Campbell Scott), is a prime example of the dull narrative fattening devices that riddle the script. Thankfully, Grant is at his most cheery and likeable in decades here to block out Lawrence’s scattergun filmmaking, and Barrymore has a true gift for lovestruck puppy eyes.
“Music and Lyrics” is barely laudable pap, and I wasn’t convinced it delivered on the Valentine’s Day chills that genre lovers deserve. Marc Lawrence doesn’t make it easy; thank heavens there’s some good old fashioned star power here to save the picture.Rating: C+