'Music and Lyrics': Work Is What Makes Life Hum

Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant form an unlikely songwriting team in
Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant form an unlikely songwriting team in "Music and Lyrics." (By Gene Page -- Warner Bros. Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

In "Music and Lyrics," Hugh Grant seems like the love child of Elton John and Kiki Dee, but the heart he breaks more often is his own.

That's because, as a refugee from an '80s pop group known for its bubbly lightness, its unbearable lightness of being, he refuses to take himself and his work seriously. He's a pop traitor; he thought he was too good for the music that liberated, then nourished, and all these years later still feeds him.

So the best thing about "Music and Lyrics," which chronicles the Grant character's resuscitation as a pop force, is its subtext of professionalism. It reveals what all practitioners of the seemingly light and amusing know but never tell you: It's bloody hard work.

In that respect, it reminds me a great deal of Meryl Streep's great soliloquy on "cerulean" in "The Devil Wears Prada." Yes, you can think of it -- "cerulean" as a color, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" as a song, "The Silence of the Lambs" as a potboiler and so on, any pop icon or even any pop non-icon -- smugly as a joke among the unwashed and the gullible. But if you make your living off it, you ought to treat it like holy writ -- sacred, serious, demanding, a phenomenon that employs the thousands and pleases the millions. If you don't take the pop sensibility seriously, there's no place for you in its world.

The movie is constructed cleverly as a love story, but while Grant and Drew Barrymore are the correspondents, they are more interesting as symbols. Grant is talent, Barrymore is professionalism. Or, Grant is professionalism, Barrymore is talent; it changes through the process, as they negotiate the progress of the relationship. But the point is, each needs the other, for love and for music.

The setup, as conceived by comedy pro Marc Lawrence (he wrote and directed after coming up through TV and the "Miss Congeniality" franchise), is cleverly simple. Grant, as one Alex Fletcher, is one-half of a pop group of '80s fame, the unsuccessful half. The other boy has gone on to movie greatness and entertainment imperialism on a grand scale. Grant's Fletcher, by contrast, lives in a decent but hardly palatial apartment in Manhattan and two or three times a month gets his weary old body to a state fair or a supermarket opening where he can just barely muster the energy to propel his reluctant pelvis through a set of the pumps and thrusts that made him hotter than a smokin' radiator back in the '80s. Needless to say, he and his fans have seen better years, harder bodies and livelier pelvi.

Grant is a superb comic actor when he gets his jiving and shucking under control, as here, and he gets not only Fletcher's weariness but also his self-contempt -- yet also his decency. He really wants to give these 40-something soccer moms a quality Alex Fletcher experience, if he can just control the impulses toward self-destruction and keep the pelvis twitching. You think: He's such a good guy, underneath it all, he deserves better than himself.

Enter, cute, Sophie Fisher. She's here to water the plants, here being his apartment, while he is in turmoil with a snarky young lyricist. The issue is that Alex has been asked by a new-age pop sensation to come up with a song for her video. It could be his ticket back to the bigs but he's got to do it by Friday, and working with this rude kid doesn't seem to be getting anyone anywhere. Meanwhile, why is the girl watering the plants coming up with better lines?

Soon an extremely awkward partnership is born: the musician who hates himself and the failed short-story-writer-turned-plant-waterer who is astounded to learn she has a rare gift for clever wordplay with specific rhythms that express emotions vibrantly. No, it's not a refrain of sheer brilliance like "You say potato, I say po-tah-to, let's call the whole thing off," but then what is?

The issues, as the movie unspools, turn out to be as much professional as romantic. Indeed, yes, Sophie and Alex fall in love, and each of the performers has an undeniable adorability factor so that you want them to succeed as lovers as well as music pros. But most of the issues are professional: What do you sacrifice to please a sponsor, in this case a dim girl who wants mainly to undulate her 19-year-old perfect body before the world while playing cymbals mounted on her fingers? She thinks she's some Hindu goddess of destruction, while Alex and Sophie would just like their song sung straight. Where do you draw the line? Where do you compromise? How hard do you fight? Is it better to yield and come back for another day or do you burn the bridges and face failure?

This is the barter of a professional life, and there's no sure principle to guide it. The true professional will have an intuition, developed by many failures, of when to press and when to fade. That's Alex's lesson to Sophie.

Hers to him is: It's worth fighting for. They're not making bubblegum, they're making the furniture of people's lives and little fragments of emotion that will succor the hurt, delight the angry and separate your kind of people from other kinds of people.

I don't think the ending is up to the rest of the movie, but Grant and Barrymore are great together and the movie's got both zing and song.

Music and Lyrics (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo.

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