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Low Note

Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore do not make sweet, sweet music

You remember Andrew Ridgeley, don't you? He was the other guy in Wham!, the one who found himself stranded in 1986 after George Michael had faith enough in his own talents to break up the act. Ridgeley went on to record one solo record before CBS Records decided, yeah, no need for a second. In Music and Lyrics,Hugh Grant plays Alex Fletcher -- "the other guy in Pop!," an '80s new-wave act that counted among its hits a hammy-and-cheesy ditty called "Pop Goes My Heart," the excruciatingly spot-on video for which we see at the film's beginning and its end.

After releasing one solo album that sold a mere 50,000 copies at a discounted price, Alex, still squeezing into tight trousers and singing the oldies, has gone on to a dispiriting life of county fair and high-school reunion gigs. But living comfortably in Manhattan on royalties and pity-party paychecks, Alex has also resigned himself to the thoroughly adequate life of being "a happy has-been." If nothing else, "it really takes the pressure off," he tells TV producers pitching him on the idea of starring in a boxing show in which the likes of Adam Ant and Billy Idol punch themselves further into oblivion. Better to be a former somebody than a never nobody.

Grant, just barely singing the phony pop songs of Fountain of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, is, in appearance, the absolute right man for the job of washed-up pop star. He still looks about a boy -- which is to say, like a man pretending he's 15 years younger than his birth certificate in order to get the girls and justify the wide-open collar and hipster jewelry -- but with a weariness smeared across his face like yesterday's lip gloss and eyeliner. Then he opens his mouth and becomes instantly less believable, looking less like Alex the has-been and more like Hugh Grant the actor trying to make heads or tails of a movie that doesn't quite know where to go with his character.

After getting Alex's backstory out of the way in the first ten minutes, writer-director Marc Lawrence, who directed Grant in the insufferable Two Weeks Notice five years back, foists upon his film a rather preposterous meet-cute featuring Drew Barrymore that renders a promising premise about comebacks and rare second chances predictable and innocuous. Music and Lyrics is like everything else on the radio now: negligible and forgettable.

The movie suggests it's going to be about redemption, the second act in the life of a punch line. Alex is offered a job writing for pop star Cora Corman (rookie Haley Bennett), a Shakira stand-in whose affinity for Hinduism is about as genuine as her blond hair. Cora's a fan and wants Alex to write the last song on her album -- and, of course, he has less than a week to do it. Alex finds a collaborator in his (yeah, here it comes) interim plant-watering lady, the hypochondriac Sophie Fisher (Barrymore), a moon-June-spoon kind of gal who provides Alex with just the grade-school poetry he needs to compose that last-second hit single.

Barrymore, so adrift of late in bar-code romantic comedies that she herself lambasted the genre in a Saturday Night Livesketch two weeks ago, has little to do here except click-click-click her pen, make eyes at Grant and occasionally fall into a funk whenever she spies a photo of her ex, a college prof-turned-best-selling-author named Sloan Cates (Campbell Scott), who's taken their long-ago love affair and turned it into a novel. (The Sophie-Sloan subplot serves as nothing more than an expository distraction in lieu of real character development. In other words, it's just your average, ordinary romcom blah-blah-blah.)

Music and Lyrics, which looks as though it were lit with two 60-watt bulbs and shot by someone just a touch near-sighted, feels as though it were made to fit a date on a studio's release schedule, a Valentine's Day bonbon crafted by machines with little thought to casting (Grant looks right but sounds wrong) or purpose. It aims for profundity, infusing Sophie with just enough neuroticism to make her appear "edgy" and "troubled," but she's such a half-baked creation her lunacy's nothing more than a gimmicky tic that goes mostly ignored. Indeed, the whole movie feels only partially finished -- like it was about something else before Grant and Barrymore were hired to fill in the blanks.

Oh, well, at least the songs are catchy; the two-tone video for "Pop Goes My Heart" is inspired, even, as it involves Alex, his hair moussed to high heaven, dying of a broken heart on an operating table, only to have his soul mended by the cool touch of a hot nurse. The thing would have played nonstop on MTV in 1984, which is about when the rest of this movie looks like it was made.

 
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