Music and Lyrics reviewed.

Reviews of the latest films.
Feb. 14 2007 3:12 PM

That's the Look of Love

Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant in Music and Lyrics.

Listen to Dana Stevens' Spoiler Special about Music and Lyrics by clicking the arrow on the player below:

You can also click here  to download the MP3 file.

Music and Lyrics. Click image to expand.
Hugh Grant in Music and Lyrics

Music and Lyrics, a gentle, loping romantic comedy written and directed by Marc Lawrence, won my heart for what it didn't do: all the moments it could have strained for farce or confessional self-disclosure, and instead turned its attention back to the problem at hand. How do you write a hit song in just a few days with a virtual stranger for a songwriting partner? And how do you strike a balance between the commercial demands of the music industry and your own creative instincts, while falling in love at the same time?

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

It's a tough row to hoe, but being Hugh Grant helps. Grant, a once-irritating pretty boy who gets looser and funnier with every new role, plays Alex Fletcher, a once-famous singer for a Wham!-esque '80s band called PoP! (The film opens with a music video for their big hit, "Pop! Goes My Heart," complete with synthesizer solos, ruffled shirts, and crests of moussed hair.) Alex has slipped comfortably into the role of show-business has-been, performing his old hits on the state-fair circuit and politely declining appearances on reality TV. When pneumatic pop star Cora Corman (Haley Bennett) names Alex as her childhood idol and asks him to write a duet to sing with her at Madison Square Garden, he jumps at the chance to revive his career. The problem is, Alex is a music guy. He can't compose a decent lyric—hence the downhill slide since losing his PoP! partner, who's gone on to become a solo success.

Advertisement

In a meet-cute that's one of the movie's few contrived moments, Alex is banging away hopelessly at the piano when Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) shows up at his apartment to water his plants. Apparently, she's the replacement for his usual plant-waterer. Why anyone would hire a plant-waterer unless they were going out of town remains a mystery, but it's an excuse for Sophie to show up, flutter about fetchingly, and mumble some half-decent lyrics as she drowns the begonias.

Convinced that he's stumbled upon "Cole Porter in panties," Alex wheedles Sophie into collaborating on the song with him. What follows is, in essence, an hour and a half of musical banter as the two fall into movie love. Pulling up to the piano with a pad and pen, Sophie and Alex toy with a lyric called "Love Autopsy," then throw themselves into composing the song for Cora, "Way Back Into Love" (written in real life by Adam Schlesinger from the band Fountains of Wayne, who also wrote the title track for the pop-centric 1996 movie That Thing You Do!).

Like all good pop songs, Alex and Sophie's opus must be an effortless-sounding trifle that's actually the result of painstaking craft. And like all movies about people making art, Music and Lyrics has its dramatic work cut out for it. We have to believe not only in Alex and Sophie's creative process, but in the song they finally create. Since the entire conflict of the movie revolves around songwriting, "Way Back Into Love" can't just spring into being in one spontaneous jam session; it has to emerge piece by piece from the growing connection between the two leads.

If watching people gnaw on pencils and stare into space is not your idea of suspense, you may find Music and Lyrics slow going. The pace is meandering, with time out for so many performance scenes that the film feels like an old-fashioned backstage musical. But there are treats along the way: Campbell Scott as Sophie's arrogant ex-lover, Kristen Johnston as her big (in every sense) sister, and newcomer Haley Bennett in a role that neatly sidesteps the Britney-and-Madonna clichés of pop princessdom. Grant learned to play piano for the role and does his own singing in a light, whispery tenor. He also busts some sublimely dumb dance moves and seems to be enjoying himself hugely. Drew Barrymore would look adorable picking her nose in an overexposed Polaroid, but her role is oddly conceived. Some of Sophie's quirks, like hypochondria, seem to fade in and out of existence according to the demands of the plot, and the character's crucial turning point—the composition of a key last stanza for the central song—happens offscreen. But there's something so winning and open about Barrymore's face, as if she's always seeing E.T. for the first time. It's hard to imagine where Barrymore's career will go after this current romantic-lead phase. But then again, you could have said as much about Hugh Grant circa 1999, and now he's the closest thing we have to Cary Grant.

In a way, the collaboration at the heart of Music and Lyrics isn't between Alex and Sophie, or Barrymore and Grant—it's the romance between Marc Lawrence's script and Adam Schlesinger's music. Lawrence's respect for the song as pop artifact is as palpable as Schlesinger's affection for the movie's characters. In its early incarnations, "Way Back Into Love" feels wobbly and tentative, a bit generic. By the time Alex and Sophie record a demo tape together, it's decidedly catchy, and when the song is finally performed in public with that plot-altering final stanza, it has the aura of inevitability that surrounds a real hit song; it may not be the most original thing you've ever heard, but damned if you can keep from humming it all the way home.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Behold

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 7:13 PM Deadly Advice When it comes to Ebola, ignore American public opinion: It’s ignorant and misinformed about the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.