Music and Lyrics Was One of the Last Good Low-Stakes Romantic Comedies

Music and Lyrics Was One of the Last Good Low-Stakes Romantic Comedies
Screenshot: (YouTube)

From the ’mid-90s to the early 2000s, it seemed like every actor on the planet who had at least a minor hit under their belt also made at least a halfhearted attempt to become a major romantic comedy star. The attempt, when it paid off, was incredibly lucrative—rom-com titans like Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, and Tom Hanks could pack theaters with even their weakest efforts. And romantic comedies, no matter how mediocre, usually seemed able to at least make their budgets back, which is why studios churned out dozens every year, some that seemed as if they were barely in the theater for more than a weekend before shuffling off to some slag heap of our collective cultural unconscious.

Music and Lyrics is one of those flash-in-the-pan romantic comedies of the mid-aughts. Written and directed by Miss Congeniality screenwriter Marc Lawrence, the film had all the trappings of success, starring rom-com staple Hugh Grant, just entering the sluggish middle of his mid-career, and Drew Barrymore, approaching the end of her bid to be a Gen X’s Meg Ryan.

When I try to explain the weird, giddy, but somehow very satisfying elements of this movie, friends think I’m describing some Mandela effect shit—a film featuring Hugh Grant as a former ’80s boy band member singing songs called “Pop Goes My Heart” and shaking his booty far more vigorously than he ever dared in Love Actually, along with Swallow’s Haley Bennet as the pop-music Frankenstein’s monster hybrid combination of yoga-era Madonna and snake-wrapped VMA’s Britney Spears, complete with a full soundtrack of pop parody bangers, some of them written by recently deceased Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and That Thing You Do songwriter Adam Schlesinger.

But this is a movie that happened, even if most of us seem to have missed it due to romantic comedy fatigue and perhaps the fact that we weren’t quite ready for the kind of tongue-in-cheek retoolings of cherished pop culture that are currently so popular. The plot of Music and Lyrics is pretty standard romantic comedy fare—Hugh Grant plays Alex Fletcher, a washed-up musician set to run out of money if he can’t turn around a hit for reigning pop princess Cora in a few short days. Drew Barrymore, whose character name doesn’t matter because it’s just Drew Barrymore, is his substitute plant waterer who just happened to have been a creative writing star at the New School until she banged a famous author and he used her as inspiration for a crazy woman character (this is the most believable part of the film if you’ve spent any time around famous male writers). Hugh needs Drew to finish his song, and she needs the confidence boost of an older man’s approval to begin writing again. They fall in love, there’s a challenge, that challenge is dispelled by a grand romantic gesture involving more dancing and singing on Hugh Grant’s part. And that is an adequate enough plot, leaving plenty of space for two romantic comedy naturals to do what they do, which is be charming standing next to one another with a camera pointed at them.

A cute little movie, my mother would call it.

As a romantic comedy leading man, the appeal of Hugh Grant is a bit like one of those blurred posters in a late-’90s mall. If you didn’t see the dolphins hidden in the center within the first few minutes of staring, you were probably never going to see them. Hugh Grant is one of the most “That guy?” woulds of all time, with people who find him unboneable completely missing what it is the rest of us are seeing. I, for one, can see the dolphins in Hugh Grant’s squiggly lines—he’s able to tell scripted jokes so quickly and humbly that they sound like original thoughts, and that understated yet constant barrage of charm is incredibly sexy. In one of his best romantic comedies, Bridget Jones’s Diary, he played a villainous boss, but as he unwittingly unearthed the main character’s girdle beneath her sexy dress and said, “No, it’s fine. I’m actually wearing something quite similar,” I completely understood why he’d be worth getting fired over.

But Music and Lyrics is six years post-Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Grant seems equal parts bored with and casually tickled by the part, which contains a lot of wit but no real jokes. At one point, Drew Barrymore’s character, who is not given a ton to do in this movie but does it adorably, tells him, “That’s wonderfully sensitive, especially from someone in such tight pants,” and he responds, “Well it forces all the blood to my heart.” Slightly more charming conversation than that generally had by regular-looking people is what Music and Lyrics consistently offers by way of banter, and instead of being dull, Grant’s offhand delivery of conversational witticisms is consistently chuckle-funny. A cute little movie, my mother would call it.

But the real reason that Music and Lyrics should be remembered, or at least watched again at some point, is the actual music. Grant’s Wham-parody pop band, simply called Pop, and the accompanying video for their hit single “Pop Goes My Heart” is everything that’s so fun and silly about some of the best musical pop culture parodies of the past few years, from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping. The lyrics are bad, but they’re supposed to be, which makes them delightful. Cora, the blonde stand-in for nearly interchangeable 2000s pop stars, “Shanti, Shanti-ing” away in the opening bars to her hit “Entering Bootytown” is a searingly accurate time capsule parody of the Ray of Light cultural appropriation era. There are a half-dozen of these songs peppering the movie and the 2007s lampooning of pop culture from both the ’80s and just a few years before should have gotten more attention, and more laughs, than it did.

Music and Lyrics would be one the last proper rom-coms that Drew Barrymore did, which is a shame because the sweetness she brings to her standard rom-com characters—women who have been recently humiliated in some way learning that it’s everyone else who sucks—makes those characters worth rooting for, even if she and Grant have so little chemistry that I forget I’m supposed to want to watch them kiss at the end and just want to fast-forward to the Pop-Up Video edit of the “Pop Goes My Heart” video that plays over the closing credits.

Lots of things killed the “Cute Little Movie” era of rom-coms featuring huge stars: oversaturation, increasingly shitty scripts, and the resultant dwindling audience. Music and Lyrics was a casualty of coming out in a year where over a dozen films were added to the already crowded playing field, including Knocked Up, Dan in Real Life, The Heartbreak Kid, and No Reservations, all with major stars throwing their hats into the rom-com ring.

Now, romantic comedies are mostly the province of streaming services like Netflix and feature up-and-coming actors flirting in the halls of high schools. I’ve seen and enjoyed these, but most of the big names, including Grant and Barrymore, seem to be done with the genre. And good for them, as A Very English Scandal and The Santa Clarita Diet are fine prestige series showcasing talents beyond their obvious charm. Music and Lyrics would never win any awards, nor should it have. But it would be nice if there were still a little bit of wiggle room for prestige TV and giant blockbuster-seeking stars to do something fun, romantic, and ultimately frivolous every once in a while.

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