Marc Lawrence’s Music and Lyrics is a lively, funny paean to pop culture, a romantic comedy in which the romance rightfully takes a back seat to the film’s sneaky insights into the timeless appeal of popular music. Rather than throwing vicious, indiscriminate punches a la Paul Weitz’s American Dreamz, the movie is thinking: it understands why Journey is good and Britney Spears is bad, musically speaking, and even begins to put its finger on the distinction. It even comes up with a serviceable music-to-food analogy.
The film’s mistake is operating under the delusion that its centerpiece is the relationship between ex-pop idol Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and plant-lady-turned-lyricist Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), when in fact its treatment of Cora Corman (Haley Bennett), the teenage pop goddess who directs the washed-up Fletcher to write a hit song by Friday, is far and away the highlight. Cora is a hilarious, pitch-perfect amalgam of Britney’s vapidity, Madonna’s bogus spirituality, Shakira’s ass-shaking, and the will to mass popularity of all of the above. Her response to the demo of Alex and Sophie’s sugary, straight-ahead piano ballad “Way Back into Love” is awe-inspiring: she adds electric sitar for “Eastern flavor” and essentially has an orgasm right in front of the stunned songwriters.
The satire’s wicked, but the intelligence of the film lies in the fact that her music isn’t awful, exactly — the first time we see her, she’s shooting an admittedly absurd music video for a song that’s serviceably catchy and far from unpleasant. But — and here comes the food analogy — it’s dessert, at best, and Music and Lyrics‘ greatest contribution is its earnest belief that good pop music can be a filling and nutritious dinner. And that’s where Alex Fletcher comes in: his theme park and county fair gigs are a long way from the heyday of his 80’s radio sensation, appropriately titled Pop, but he’s retained some devoted fans (including, apparently, Cora Corman), and no wonder: the unspeakably cheesy video that opens the film notwithstanding (“Pop Goes My Heart” is taken very literally), his inoffensive, infectious, chart-topping tunes are, at least in theory and in the film’s universe, good enough to love.
Nor does the movie lecture us about “selling out.” Lawrence laughs at Cora Corman, but he doesn’t disdain her; indeed, she begins the film as Fletcher’s salvation, and ends it that way too. And though her bastardization of “The Way Back Into Love” is ridiculous — and the film is insightful enough to see why — we’re mostly left to come to terms with the commercial instincts that incentivize those kinds of stunts. Popularity and mass appeal are never dismissed or scoffed at, and given Music and Lyrics‘ Valentine’s Day aspirations, that makes the movie disarmingly honest.
Insofar as Music and Lyrics is out to win hearts and please crowds, it should succeed: Lawrence writes great dialogue for Grant, who winds up channelling Woody Allen with a constant stream of withering sarcasm and self-deprecating jokes, and Barrymore milks her trademark sweetheart character to charming effect. Their romance never quite materializes — the movie is having too much fun satirizing pop idolatry past and present to really care — and so the triumphant, mostly predictable ending seems a little hollow, but it’s almost just as well. Music & Lyrics goes down smooth, but packs enough substance to qualify as dinner. Hugh Grant playing an 80s musical sensation and a wonderful cameo by Campbell Scott are dessert.