Feb 16, 2007

Melodic Guy, Verbal Gal Meet Cute and Get Lyrical

Playing Alex Fletcher, a semi-washed-up British pop star whose heyday was in the haircut-band ’80s, Hugh Grant, one of the stars of “Music and Lyrics,” delivers a reasonably convincing impersonation of, well, Hugh Grant. He stammers articulately, ducks his head coyly to one side and ornaments his line readings with cute qualifications and digressions, as in: “We have tonight, the morning and just the teeniest little bit of the afternoon.”

Gene Page/Warner Brothers Pictures

Scott Porter, left, and Hugh Grant as pop stars in "Music and Lyrics."

There is no shame in this kind of consistency or predictability. After all, the movie stars of old delighted their fans by inhabiting the same basic persona in role after role. Before Hugh Grant, for instance there was another Grant, Cary, who was always reliably himself and who enjoyed the good fortune of working with some of Hollywood’s finest directors, from Howard Hawks to Alfred Hitchcock.

“Music and Lyrics,” in contrast, is the type of modern Hollywood production that aspires to nothing more than the competent dispensing of mild amusement and easy emotion. The writer and director, Marc Lawrence (“Two Weeks Notice,” also starring Mr. Grant), shows some imagination as he parodies the music-video styles of various eras, and he contrives a bit of novelty in making the movie’s central couple creative partners as well as potential lovers. Mr. Grant’s opposite number is Drew Barrymore, playing a lovable flake named Sophie who arrives at Alex’s Upper West Side apartment and sticks around to help him make beautiful music.

Or, at least, a hummable, ticky-tacky pop tune. Alex, who earns a decent if humiliating living performing his old hits (and semi-sexy dance moves) on the fairground and class-reunion circuit, has a shot at a comeback, thanks to a teenage pop-tart named, of all things, Cora (Haley Bennett).

Ms. Bennett, a newcomer to feature films, shows herself to be a deft enough comedian, sending up both the vacuous spirituality and the teasing hypersexuality of Cora’s real-life counterparts. With her blissed-out face and wriggling body, Cora puts the booty in Buddhism.

She also commissions a song from Alex, but his gift is strictly for melodic clichés. The verbal kind come naturally to Sophie, who was an aspiring writer before being dumped by her professor, a famous novelist (suavely played by Campbell Scott) who has unflatteringly modeled a character in his latest best seller on her.

Sophie’s collaboration with Alex hits the expected snags and misunderstandings, and while there is not much chemistry between Mr. Grant and Ms. Barrymore, they are professional enough to work with the movie’s conceit while sending flickers of idiosyncratic charm off the screen.

Mr. Grant is at his best when he allows a hard glint of caddish narcissism to peek through his easy flirtatiousness, something he did in “About a Boy” and “American Dreamz.” There is not quite enough of that here, nor enough of the anarchic loopiness that Ms. Barrymore brought to roles opposite Adam Sandler in “The Wedding Singer” and “50 First Dates.”

Apart from Cora, the secondary characters are more perfunctory than inspired, though Kristen Johnston has some juicy, unhinged moments as Sophie’s older sister, whose fan-crush on Alex has hardly cooled since the mid-’80s, despite marriage and motherhood.

The songs, composed for the film by Adam Schlesinger, are affectionate tributes to the MTV fodder of the present and (mostly) the past. They provide sweet reminders of the giddy delight of good bad popular music.

The movie itself can’t quite pull off the same kind of trick. “Way Back Into Love,” the fruit of Alex and Sophie’s partnership, is both synthetic and sincere, a credible facsimile of the kind of throwaway hit that worms its way into your head and, decades later, refuses to worm its way out. “You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, and we danced! Touch me baby, tainted love. Relax! Everybody wants to rule the ...”

Sorry, what were we talking about? I must be getting old. Oh right, “Music and Lyrics.” A movie with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. Play a few bars on the Casio and maybe I’ll remember.

“Music and Lyrics” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some sexual situations and naughty language. Parents of a certain age who see it with their children may have to endure some uncomfortable questions about the ’80s. (www.salon.com)

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