'Music and Lyrics' drips like muzak

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Hugh Grant plays a former '80s pop teen idol in "Music and Lyrics" and he takes to the part with appalling aplomb. Early on, in the best scene in the movie, we see him in an MTV-style music video with his Duran Duran-ish group PoP, and he's garishly mod. In the present day, as an official has-been, Alex Fletcher spends most of his screen time mugging sheepishly, as if he couldn't quite face up to what he has become.

He doesn't carry on this way for his own sake. Alex is actually rather comfortable in his skin. He's made his peace with playing state fairs and high school reunions. But he thinks that some people may wish to avert their eyes and he prefers to spare them discomfort.

The flip side of this are the hordes of 40-ish female fans who still crowd his appearances. To them he remains a "Tiger Beat" idol, and Alex does his best to wiggle and shake in their honor. His fans feel younger when they watch him croon. Alex, however, feels older, and his career prospects are drying up.

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If writer-director Marc Lawrence had stuck with Alex's faded glory, "Music and Lyrics" could have been terrific. It could have been about something. Instead, he's confected a curdled valentine about how Alex falls in love with Sophie (Drew Barrymore), the woman who cares for his plants and who also – surprise! – turns out to be a gifted lyricist. Since Alex can't write lyrics, it's a match made in Hollywood heaven, where the air is often a bit thin.

Through a series of contrived plot byways, Alex is asked to whip up a new song for Cora Corman (Haley Bennett), the reigning Britney Spears-like star.

It's not Alex's cup of tea but he needs the money and if he comes through, Cora will allow him to sing his song with her at Madison Square Garden. Suffice it to say that, in the course of collaborating, Alex and Sophie open up to each other about their fears and disappointments while we in the audience give in to our fears and disappointment that, once again, a good cast and a good idea has been sacrificed on the slippery altar of soppiness.

It's fortunate that Sophie is played by Barrymore, who shows off her dimply smile just about as often as Grant mugs. She can light up a scene just by being in it. (Throughout her career, I've rarely seen an actress do more with less.) But everything is so cutesy-poo between these two that you begin to wonder if the climax of the movie will be a chaste smooch. (Not a bad guess.)

Sophie is not allowed to display her rejuvenating spirit for long. Too much screen time is given over to the harm done her by her writing professor (Campbell Scott), a condescending cad who used their fling as grist for his bestselling novel. Who wants to see a mopey, tongue-tied Drew Barrymore?

She's much better in her scenes with her sister Rhonda, a die-hard fan of Alex. As played by Kristen Johnston, Rhonda, who is twice the size of Sophie, and runs a diet clinic called "Weight-Not," is a superannuated teenybopper.

When Sophie takes her to one of Alex's high school reunion gigs, Rhonda rushes the stage as if she was 18 again. Johnston is a marvelous actress who knows how to use her stature for comic effect. I was kind of hoping it would be she who rode off into the sunset with Alex. They would have blazed quite a trail. Grade: C+

Rated PG-13 for some sexual content.

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