Valentines day is a once-a-year boon to the flower industry, and to romantic comedies starring Drew Barrymore. The writer/director of this year’s rom com offering, Marc Lawrence, is a keen enough observer to have noticed that pop music and pop movies share similar formulae. They are also deceptively difficult to do well. It takes a different melody put to a familiar beat. Much like his main character, an 80’s pop icon now in the twilight of obscurity, Lawrence has made a chart-topper, albeit an ephemeral one.
The movie opens with its best foot forward: A spot-on parody of an 80’s music video for the song “Pop Goes My Heart” [YouTube link]. (Knowing that the rest of the movie fails to have the same density of humor, the filmmakers replay it in its entirety at the end, only with VH1-style pop-ups.) The music of Music & Lyrics is Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant). He has the unrealistic problem of being a great songwriter who is horrible at writing lyrics. Drew Barrymore plays Sophie Fisher, who has an unrealistic knack for the half-clever half-rhymes that pop music demands. Together, they are unrealistically charged with writing a hit song for Cora, an unfortunately realistic amalgam of Britney, Cristina and Shakira (played by Haley Bennett, whose only acting advantage over an elm tree is that she looks the part). The obligatory scenes (meet cute etc.) are taken at a nice slow tempo, with dialgue that more often than not is rather witty, although it does strike a few wrong notes here and there. Barrymore is effortless at playing winsome. Grant has a bit more struggle with his own iconography. He is meant to be charming, which is his version of sleepwalking, but he is supposed to do it in a cheesy, sweet way — which seems to glance off the iron core of his ironic British heart at times. Kristen Johnston gives the one breakout performance, stealing a number of scenes as Sophie’s housewife sister who still nurtures a schoolgirl crush on Grant’s 80’s heartthrob.
A Campbell Scott sub-plot, which seems to suggest Barrymore’s Sophie is actually a manipulative vixen, pays off in the respect that it sows seeds of doubt in the burgeoning relationship and provides Grant’s character ammunition in the requisite ‘Boy Loses Girl’ scene. That doubt is so potent, it lingers long after the last reel’s reconcilliation. Walking from the theater amongst happy couples, I pondered a sequel to the movie, wherein the patina of kooky lovability is gradually chipped from Barrymore’s babyface. Her chipper lyrics turn to rust; Grant’s dimples gradually become folds of skin covering his handsomer features. Would he still feed her — would she still need him — when they are sixty-four?