Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Music and Lyrics (2007)

There's a movie coming out this week called Gray Matters; I reviewed it in the new issue of IFC News. Its writer/director professes a love of 1940s movies and claims her intent with Gray Matters is to reinvent those sorts of films for a modern audience. She falls a bit short of her noble goal, but a film out this week called Music and Lyrics succeeds where it fails. I'm not saying Hugh Grant is Cary Grant...okay I'm sort of going to say that and everyone is going to laugh at me and give me a wedgie in blog comment form...but H. Grant's part, that of washed-up pop star Alex Fletcher, would have made a fine role for C. Grant in his middle-to-late years. I see Audrey Hepburn in the Drew Barrymore role (Sorry Drew, not going to make that comparison. Not in the same league, though you're quite adorable in this and most films).

Alex Fletcher was in an 80s band called Pop that looks like Wham! and sounds a bit like A-Ha and Duran Duran; their big hit was called "Pop Goes My Heart." Alex was really "the other guy" in the band — when the better-looking, more talented Colin was convinced by his entourage that he was better-looking and more talented he quit the group and went solo. Without his creative partner, Alex floundered, a musician without a lyricist, and eventually turned to making a living by playing sad gigs at amusement parks and high school reunions. As Music and Lyrics begins, Alex is at his lowest point: he can't even keep a gig at Knott's Berry Farm (and his manager, a genial Brad Garrett, warns he can't play bar mitzvahs — 13-year-olds have no idea who he is).

Another actor might have played Alex as a loser and a mope, but Hugh plays him like Cary would: as a quick-talking charmer who uses the skills he had as a pop star to keep himself shut off from his own feelings. In to his life walks Drew Barrymore's Sophie Fisher, a replacement for the girl who regularly comes to water his plants. Without getting into too many further details, Alex gets in a once-in-a-lifetime shot at a comeback, writing a new song for the hottest act in the world, a vapid blonde named Cora (a shockingly good Haley Bennett) and after some convenient happy accidents, Sophie becomes his new lyricist. Cue the flying sparks, both creative and sexual.

There was a period there was Hugh Grant got sick of playing charming British dudes, or perhaps the audience got sick of seeing Grant playing charming British dudes and Grant got wise; maybe it's a combination of the two. But for a while there — About a Boy, American Dreamz, The Bridget Joneses — he was out to tweak himself a little, show some range where before there seemed to be none. He played lazy, he played angry, he played asshole, and he did them all quite well. Indeed, there was still something quite charming in all of the more flawed characters he played. Music and Lyrics is Grant back in old-school mode, with his star power's wattage off the charts.

Hugh Grant will never be Cary Grant. Never. But... (stay with me...) he may be this generation's next best thing. Like his nominal predecessor (though unlike Archie, it's his real name), Hugh can do funny or serious, and he's great with that screwball-style of quick dialogue (though Barrymore, who barrels into the film like a hypochondriacal tornado, might be even better). He can make things funny with a gesture or a smile, and he always brings the best out of his female co-stars, a big reason, I imagine, why so many huge actresses have worked with him. Again, Cary Grant could have played the part better. But not that much better.

Barrymore is good too, better than I expected really; one scene that finds her confronting an ex she hasn't gotten over (played by Campbell Scott, who does more in one scene than some actors do in whole movies), and he gets her flabbergasted and she plays it real and funny at the same time. When Scott writes her off, Barrymore manages to cry without crying and laugh without laughing; it's really quite a remarkable feat of facial and nasolacrimal dexterity. Her character is underwritten but Barrymore's sheer presence fills in the backstory for us, she brings it to life.

Two more brief points (I'm gushing a little too much — I liked it, but not this much). First, this is a movie about pop music and so it's essential that the songs sound like real ones that could be #1 hits. This is a stumbling block for plenty of music-centric movies (like Grant's American Dreamz, for instance). Here, they really work; a few are quite hummable, due in large part to the role of composer on the film being filled by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger. Second, a movie that features biggest pop star in the world needs to fill the role in a way that a)makes us believe the actress could be a huge pop starand that b)also makes fun of the whole notion of big pop stars. And Haley Bennett (with help from the screenplay by director Marc Lawrence) accomplishes both. She looks, moves, and sings like a legit Top 40 teeny bopper (Shakira, who gets name checked, is a clear target of the satire), and in the dialogue scenes she portrays vapidness to perfection, not so much ditsy as entirely and wholly without thought. Plenty of people have played dumb memorably, I don't know that anyone has ever played insipidness with such precision.

It's worth seeing. It's a good date movie. It's funny. It's sweet. It's light. It's cheesy, but not too cheesy. It's a romantic comedy that does not stink.

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Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

Okay, Matt, I'll be that guy: have you seen a late-period Cary Grant movie? Yes, Cary Grant did have his moment as a fast-talking charmer, but with the later films, he choses his words far more carefully, his delivery has slowed to the point where we fix on his intelligence. Likewise, while he is old in his later stuff, he has typically weathered middle age with dignity that remains inscribed in his character(s). He's never, properly speaking, washed up, or am I forgetting something? I guess that my point is that Cary Grant would not have done a role like the one you've mentioned.

That said, Hugh Grant can be a very fine actor, who is at once quite handsome (or better yet, cute?) and who maintains the ability to play comedy and drama in equal measures. This is to say that he is indeed Cary Grant-like. A more general comparison is not off base.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

Well I said "middle-to-late" but perhaps I should have just said middle -- I definitely think this is a Cary Grant role. Though you may be right that by a certain point he wouldn't have played the part, and yes, say in a role like CHARADE he'd become a bit more subdued, a bit less talkative, I maintain that there was definitely a period there where this would have made a fine, fine role for the early Grant.

4:30 PM  

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