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Music and Lyrics

Marc Lawrence's Music and Lyrics is a pleasant comedy whose formulaism is redeemed by extremely well-tweaked details. Take the piano lid. Faded pop star Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) has a thing about people putting their things on the lid of his piano. As Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) deposits her bag, her scarf, and her coat on the lid, Alex removes them. He does not complain, even when he has to do this again. And again. The thing about the lid remains unspoken. During the nicely pinned-on credit sequence, Sophie makes it clear (if mutely) that she doesn't deposit her belongings on the piano lid anymore, telegraphing a sense of the strength of her by now consummated relationship with Alex. The not-talking-about-it is impressive also for showing that apparently laid-back conversationalists like Alex can and do have their uptight sides. It's not Molière, but it's not unintelligent, either.

With every movie that he makes, Hugh Grant proves how worthy he is of that celebrated surname (which in his case is genuine). There is a sparkling congruency here between the professionalism with which Alex manages the remnant of his once-great pop music career and the professionalism of Mr Grant's surrender to his role. Movies like Music and Lyrics succeed if and when their stars are perfectly comfortable doing what they're doing. Ms Barrymore is almost as good, but she liable - rather helplessly, I'm sure - to excessive cuteness. When she wasn't being cute, she was - being Susan Sarandon! At least that's what it felt like. Which is great; if only Ms Barrymore would learn to be cute in the way that Ms Sarandon is cute - always with an edge, either of "ulterior motive" or vulnerable hope.

As it turns out, Sophie is just as badly in need of redemption as Alex is. She makes her entrance as the "plant girl," filling in for the woman who waters Alex's many houseplants. (He keeps them because women have told him that they feel more comfortable when there are houseplants.) But presently she is shown to have a more complicated resume. Music and Lyrics is essentially about how Alex and Sophie inspire each other to give life another big try, and it would be cloying if the challenge were not so frightful. In what may be the director's shrewdest move, Haley Bennett plays the movie's superbig pop star, Cora Corman, for whom Alex must come up with a hit song in just a week, as a Buddhist mask. Her face seems not to move, only to gleam. The rest of her is a squeaky-clean slut. She is more juggernaut than human being, and even as she reveals herself to be a genuine goddess, she's so terrifying that we worry that Alex and Sophie will not survive the glare of her monumental vacancy.

We're also distracted from the formula by well-chosen shortcuts. Alex and Sophie make love not far past the halfway point, but this is not taken seriously by either of them - they were just "responding to the moment." This is not the sort of movie in which the lovers appear to work everything out long before it can be over - thus requiring a mock-catastrophic peripety. Alex and Sophie inch their way steadily to the clench at the end, and there is no false finale. The film also handles a stock supporting character with unusual concision: Rhonda, Sophie's older sister (Kristen Johnston), whose whole idea of heaven was Alex Fletcher - twenty years ago, when she was a big fan. At first palpitatedly star-struck, Rhonda cools off quickly and does not (a) try to steal Alex or (b) warn Sophie against him. It's so hard to believe that Ms Johnston and Ms Barrymore could be sisters, however, that I found myself regarding Rhonda more as a mother-figure.

Brad Garrett (as Alex's agent) and Campbell Scott (as Sophie's great love/cad) are first-rate supporters here. Although he's still fit and handsome, Mr Scott seems to have moved all of a sudden into middle age; his natural gravitas no longer seems precocious. In fact, I didn't recognize him. He seemed familiar in his one scene, but I couldn't place him. The miracle of Music and Lyrics is that it never feels as familiar as it ought to do. Without ever risking the loss of the film's intended mass audience, Mr Lawrence arranges the elements of romantic-comedy formula so that they'll be sure to tickle the intelligent eye. You'll even find yourself paying attention to the lyrics of Alex's love song to Sophie, because they're not half-bad for someone who's hopeless with lyrics. (February 2007)

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