Warner Bros. // 2007 // 103 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // May 8th, 2007
Pop goes my heart.
Good romantic comedy is a tricky thing to pull off. The best examples of the genre (Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally... to name but one) depend on three key elements in order to succeed: likable characters, chemistry between the performers, and intelligent writing.
Music and Lyrics, the newest entry into the genre from writer/director Marc Lawrence, gets two of the three right...sort of.
Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant, About a Boy) is a has-been. Though he was once in the band PoP! (clearly modeled on Wham!) and ruled the 1980s, things have dried up a bit -- he's now playing state fairs and taking meetings for TV shows in which Tiffany will box Debbie Gibson. That is, until the country's biggest pop diva ("Bigger than Britney and Christina combined!"), Cora Corman (Haley Bennett, very funny in her first movie role), commissions him to write her next hit single. With only two weeks to crank out a pop gem, the lyrically-challenged Alex turns to the eccentric Sophie (Drew Barrymore, Fever Pitch) -- who only shows up at his apartment to water the plants, but has a knack for turning a phrase -- to collaborate with him and make musical magic. Hmm...while they're busy writing a love song, will they find the kind of love to sing about together? Two guesses. First one doesn't count.
Music and Lyrics is a film to be enjoyed, despite its many obvious flaws. It's the kind of movie many viewers may criticize, and they're probably right to do so. There's hardly a criticism one could level against it that I wouldn't agree with. That doesn't mean I don't like Music and Lyrics; only that I recognize just how problematic it is. For a better understanding of what I mean, let's break it down:
The performers are charming and adorable. Note to the studios: there is a difference between "attractive" and "likable." Just because two performers are aesthetically pleasing doesn't mean we care whether or not they find love. Case in point: Failure to Launch, in which the audience is meant to give a damn about two characters (who were both, by the way, repellent human beings) finding love simply because they are hot.
Music and Lyrics, on the other hand, gets it right. When written for correctly, Hugh Grant isn't so much an actor as he is a natural resource; charming the ladies with stammering British self-deprecation, while distancing himself enough from the proceedings that it's ok for boys to enjoy themselves, too. And despite my best efforts to the contrary, Drew Barrymore usually finds a way to win me over. This is crucial for a romantic comedy to work. It also helps that the actors find different ways to be funny. Grant's character knows just how funny he is; he's in on the joke. Sophie, a clueless mess, is not.
The actors, likable as they may be, aren't given characters to play. They're basically just playing themselves -- which, I've noticed, both Grant and Barrymore are often called up to do in romantic comedies. There is an attempt to flesh out Sophie by making her quirky (read: annoying) by giving her an unnecessary back story, but that fades away rather quickly as Barrymore settles into the role and just starts being herself.
The film doesn't rely on major contrivances and needless miscommunication to break up the characters, just so that they can reunite at the end. For whatever reason, every romantic comedy thinks it's necessary to do this, so there is often a lot of characters overhearing one another at inopportune moments or misunderstandings that could be cleared up with a single line of dialogue. Music and Lyrics doesn't exactly go this route. I'm not saying it doesn't split up its characters, only that it finds a way to do so based in their personalities and beliefs, and not simply on the mechanics of the plot.
Just because the "dark before the dawn" sequence isn't as contrived as it could be doesn't mean the screenplay isn't contrived. There are no surprises to be found in Music and Lyrics, and the plot doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. The notion that the biggest teen idol in the country (Cora) would turn to an '80s has-been to write her next hit doesn't make much sense; as vapid as Cora is made to be, it doesn't even make sense that she would be a fan of PoP! in the first place. And why make Sophie a plant waterer with no songwriting experience? How does that do anything for the film but stretch credibility? Would the film have been less believable if Sophie was just a professional lyricist who gets paired together (Against her will, even? Movies love that device...) with Alex to write a song? Couldn't we still see them feel each other out, form their working relationship, and fall in love? Is that somehow a worse movie? Too many romantic comedies depend on silly, made up, stupid plots. Music and Lyrics avoids many pitfalls, but not this one.
Music and Lyrics is a valentine to pop music. Hugh Grant is given a nice moment where he expounds upon the poetry of "My Girl" and its pop brethren. It's good to see a movie that takes such a warm position on the purity and simplicity of pop, celebrating the often under-appreciated form. The music, contributed by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger (who is also responsible for the title track in That Thing You Do!, one of the greatest movie songs ever written), celebrates pop music, too; it's catchy enough to work, but also self-aware and lame enough to be a knowing parody of '80s synth-pop. I also like the way Hugh Grant's character is totally comfortable with his status as a has-been; he doesn't judge himself or his fans. I can imagine a different version in which Grant's character would do anything to be back on top again, and that's his motivation for the entire story. Having him be happy with being a has-been is the riskier choice.
There's not enough of "Something Good." Too much of Music and Lyrics is devoted to silly relationship stuff and Sophie's lamentable back story (she had a failed affair with a successful author, played by Campbell Scott). Some of the material with Cora is spot-on and quite funny, but the film never goes far enough; the satirical aspects of the teen-star sexpot and her wacky religious beliefs could have been smarter and more pointed. It's as though Lawrence believed that just including it would be enough.
So there you go. For everything that works about Music and Lyrics, there's just as much that doesn't. In the end, the movie weighs in favor of working -- Grant and Barrymore are charming enough, the music is bright and poppy enough, and there are enough smart one-liners to make it all come together. It's not a classic romantic comedy, but if you are a fan of the genre it won't waste your time.
The DVD from Warner Bros. is as mixed a bag as the movie itself. As is now common practice with the studio, two separate versions of the movie have been released: a full frame and a widescreen version, which is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and preserves the theatrical composition. That version, enhanced for anamorphic playback, is the one viewed by this critic and is the version being discussed here. The image is sharp but looks a little washed out, which is more likely the result of the photography than the transfer. Three separate 5.1 surround tracks have been included for each of the three language options (which is nice; usually only the English language track gets the 5.1 mix, while other language tracks get the standard stereo track), and balance the dialogue-driven center channel with the surrounding channels (mostly music and score) adequately.
A reasonable amount of extras have been included (Something Good), but don't offer much (Something Bad). There's a gag reel that consists mostly of actors blowing lines; a standard making-of featurette that reveals nothing; some deleted scenes that don't work at all (though none are the scenes that run over the movie's end credits, which is an odd choice); and some bonus trailers. The disc's best extra is the video for "Pop Goes My Heart!," which is very funny, but runs in its entirety over the opening of the movie. Including it in the bonus features is a bit redundant.
Did I enjoy Music and Lyrics? Yes. Can I blame someone for not having the patience for it? Probably not.
Not Guilty...but not by much.
Review content copyright © 2007 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel
* "Note for Note": Making Of Featurette
* "PoP Goes My Heart!" Music Video
* Official Site