— Hugh Grant in another one of his shallow-guy-finds-a-clue performances, a character so in his wheelhouse that people may dismiss it as “just playing himself” (in other words not really acting.) In case you’re new round these parts, nothing annoys me more than the “just playing himself” observation; as a matter of fact, I tend to write off the people who use it, write them off completely, mind you, especially when they use it to describe why they do not like a particular actor: “He just keeps playing himself,” pontificates some critic, and voila, I get to write them off! It’s a great time-saver. I like to know that the person I devote precious time to reading actually knows what they are talking about and “So-and-so just plays himself” is an awesome “tell” that I get to move on to read somebody else.) I love Hugh Grant, and I love him especially when he plays clueless selfish and casually cruel men – there’s an anxiety in his eyes when a woman gets too close, or softens towards him. It’s painful to witness, and he’s wonderful at it. So anyway, in Music and Lyrics Hugh Grant, with spiky “fashionable” hair (on the border of embarrassing), open-collared shirts (also embarrassing), tight pants (ditto), plays Alex Fletcher, a 1980s Has-been, clearly modeled on “the other guy in Wham!”. Alex Fletcher was part of a huge pop-duo called Pop! (the movie opens with one of their music videos from 1984 and is so funny I could barely even process what I was seeing). Alex wanders helplessly through the decades of his post-career, playing at amusement parks and high school reunions on a strict nostalgic ticket. Hugh Grant has given his character a couple of stage-movements, hip thrusts, arms up, that clearly were what he did once upon a time when he was a star, and the middle-aged ladies go wild … but watching Hugh Grant swivel his ass for a group of screaming 40-year-olds is sublime and ridiculous. He is a ridiculous character and yet … the film has affection for him, too.
— Drew Barrymore plays Sophie Fisher, a woman Alex hires to take care of his plants, who ends up showing a gift for improvising lyrics. Sophie is not a manic-pixie-dream-girl although her entrance, adorable, chatty, and clumsy, gave me a bad feeling at first. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl would have flitted into Alex’s miserable angsty-life, with a gift for spouting off rhymes that came from out of nowhere, flitting about like Snow White, caring for the plants, helping him find the perfect rhyme. But no, as we get to know Sophie, we understand her past, we understand the damage that had been done to her gift for writing by a powerful mentor, her belief in herself shattered. She’s a real person, not just a glittery-fairy-of-helpfulness. She’s doing her best to get by, but she’s covering up a huge sense of disappointment and betrayal. Barrymore is a great screwball comedienne. Watch her try to stumble her way through a restaurant, hiding from the Love of Her Life sitting at the bar. She is terrified that he will see her, so she crawls through the tables, she holds a menu up over her face and stalks across the room, she races behind a column, peeking out like a lunatic … it’s clumsy and grand and funny and tragic, all at the same time. At one point during a fight, Alex fires an observation at her, a really low-blow, and she winces, her hands fly over her face, and she demands, “Take it back!” It’s so honest it brought tears to my eyes. She’s wonderfully warm and funny throughout.
— Like Love and Basketball (and the director’s latest, Beyond the Lights, which was on my Top 10 this year), like The Thin Man, like His Girl Friday, and many others, Music and Lyrics is about romance, sure, but it is really about WORK. It is about two people who fall in love through their work, or … their work is AS important to them as their desire to find love. The majority of Music and Lyrics involves the evolution of their working relationship, Hugh Grant as musician, Drew Barrymore as lyricist, and these scenes feel fresh, real, the two of them struggling to find the perfect metaphor or analogy that will set the particular song free. I love movies about work, movies that prioritize work as JUST as important as love. So often characters in rom-coms have “jobs” only, jobs that are metaphorical or symbolic, and involve nothing more than symbolic gestures suggesting the “work” being done. Ooh, she’s uptight, therefore she jabs at her office phone with a pencil, wearing severe retro glasses, surrounded by sleek glass tables, and that’s her ‘job’. By the end of the movie she’ll be wearing comfy sweats and will have achieved balance! Bah. To many of us, work takes on practically a sacred position. Compromising work is non-negotiable. Work is not symbolic. It is our very essence. Music and Lyrics is actually all about that in a way that takes it seriously, actually understands some of what songwriters go through (much of it lampooned, of course, but still, given its due), and gives each character a motivation to go into their songwriting project with tremendous gusto and drive. Their objectives often clash. They don’t know each other that well. They learn about one another on the job.
— Kristen Johnston as Drew Barrymore’s sister. Watch her totally freeze when her sister tells her she met “Alex Fletcher.” Her eyes go dead. Then come the screams, the manic screams of how much she still loves him.
— Haley Bennett as “Cora Corman,” the biggest pop star in the world who loves Alex Fletcher’s 1980s stuff and hires him to write a song for her, out of the blue. Cora is an amalgamation of Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and Madonna in her Ray of Light period. Cora turns everything into a sex-romp, every ballad becoming an opportunity to writhe on the floor, pushing her ass up at the audience, and yet her overall “thing” is total Buddhist-culture appropriation: she emerges from a gigantic statue of Buddha in her Madison Square Garden concert. But there are other things going on with this character, and her love of Alex Fletcher is sincere, although her flat-affect line-reading makes you not so sure. This was Haley Bennett’s debut. A character like Cora Corman could have been like shooting fish in a barrel, and there is definitely some light mockery about pop stars who aggressively lead with their sexuality and then are shocked when their fans won’t let them do anything else. The entire Cora Corman arc resolves itself in a very satisfying way.
— I laughed. As I mentioned, I also welled up with tears. All good. I did not feel manipulated, I felt engaged. The film trucks in rom-com cliches but spins them, makes them unique, fills them with earned emotion. The film is truly funny. There is a sweetness that seems genuine. Both main characters are well-drawn and well-played. The romance is not the Greatest Love of All Time, but a source of comfort and long-deferred ease in companionship and collaboration. It feels very grown-up. At some point I realized that I cared almost more about them completing the song they were working on than them getting together romantically. And that’s just as it should be.