The amusement inherent in watching Hugh Grant play a washed-up ’80s boy-band pop star angling for a comeback provides “Music and Lyrics” with its catchy hook. Sitcommy in structure and execution, this very mainstream romance between an aging, commitment-phobic pretty-boy and an emotionally wounded gal whose songwriting collaboration takes on a personal dimension, offers few surprises. But its pep, agreeable performances and appealing central conceit will profitably put this Warner Bros. Valentine’s Day romantic comedy over with women and couples seeking a nice diversion.
Just now beginning to show some signs of encroaching middle age, Grant is ideally cast as Alex Fletcher, who, as shown in a zippy musicvid-style opener, came out on the short end of music superstardom after his megaband split up a generation before. Self-deprecating without bitterness, Alex is remarkably well adjusted as he sucks it up to play the occasional gig at school reunions and amusement parks.
All the same, this “happy has-been” is delighted to learn that reigning pop queen Cora Corman (Haley Bennett) wants her childhood heartthrob to write a duet, to be called “Way Back Into Love,” for them to sing at Madison Square Garden in a few days. Alex needs a lyricist pronto and, in a very lame meet-cute, seizes upon the first person at hand, his “plant lady,” Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), to collaborate with him day and night until they’ve produced a surefire hit.
More noticeably than with Alex, the bloom is off Sophie’s rose. She’s withdrawn into deepest insecurity after having been burned by her former English professor, Sloan Cates (Campbell Scott), whose bestselling novel mercilessly vivisects a character plainly based on Sophie. For no reason other than to create a little artificial drama, Sophie initially resists Alex’s entreaties, but they soon click so thoroughly that they are making music both at and beneath Alex’s piano.
More excited by Sophie’s new romance than is Sophie herself is her sister Rhonda, boisterously played by marvelously deep-voiced big girl Kristen Johnston (“3rd Rock From the Sun”). Complications arise when Alex and Sophie are invited into Cora’s exotic world and discover what the trendy singer intends to do with their song. But there is little doubt all along that the final sequence will see Alex and Cora onstage at the Garden in front of thousands of tweenie fans.
Writer-director Marc Lawrence, following up his directorial debut “Two Weeks Notice” and two previous writing gigs for Sandra Bullock (“Forces of Nature” and “Miss Congeniality”), makes everything about three times more obvious than it needs to be; as a director, he needs to edit himself better as a writer. Visual setups are by-the-numbers.
But there’s energy here, and the actors feed on it. Grant carries the day as the fortysomething lad still living off his youth and just about getting away with it; from his first moment onscreen, he persuades you he’s the only possible actor for this tailor-made role. No matter Grant’s effervescence, newcomer Bennett nearly steals every scene she’s in as the Britney/Christina/Madonna figure. Very cute and a hot little dancer, the singer-thesp presents an implacable figure of absolute privilege and authority while sneakily sending up the whole celebrity package in a wonderfully sly turn.
Which leaves Barrymore something of the odd woman out. Granted her Sophie starts out just wanting to blend into the wallpaper, but the star still comes off as rather more drab than necessary, or at least seems so in light of the charisma popping from the pores of those around her. Surrounded by an ex-star, a diva, a brilliant former boyfriend and a livin’-large sister, it’s hard for a normal neurotic to get a word in edgewise.
Musical elements are a big plus, notably the crucial central tune by Adam Schlesinger of the band Fountains of Wayne.