For Valentine’s Day, you could do a lot worse than “Music and Lyrics,” the new Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore romantic comedy.
While it may go soft near the end, when it slavishly adheres to the conventions of the genre, it begins with an irresistible burst of energy and remains quite watchable for much of its running time. And as far as first-run date movies go, it’s really the only game in town.
Cast as an aging rock star named Alex Fletcher, Grant delivers one of those wonderfully self-effacing performances that keep him from going stale. During an exhilarating opening credit sequence that seems designed for an instant replay (it does get a rerun during the closing credits), we see Fletcher in his 1980s glory, churning out glossy boy-band videos that could have been telecast during the first summer of MTV.
But now he’s a nostalgia attraction, reduced to playing amusement parks and considering a boxing showdown with another washed-up star in “The Battle of the 1980s Has-Beens.” We learn that Adam Ant and Billy Idol have agreed to compete on the show, but Fletcher must draw the line somewhere.
Besides, he’s been given an opportunity to work with the current queen of pop, Cora (Haley Bennett), a bubbleheaded trend-setter who claims that one of his songs made her childhood bearable when her parents were splitting up. She wants him to write and perform a song with her, and she’s even given him a title — “A Way Back Into Love” — inspired by her traumatic breakup with a boyfriend who lasted all of two months.
The lyrics are eventually provided by Sophie Fisher (Barrymore), a ditsy motormouth who waters Fletcher’s plants and turns out to have other talents. Her older sister (Kristen Johnston), another Fletcher fan, cheers her on when they become an item, while his manager (Brad Garrett) tries to adjust to each new development.
Writer-director Marc Lawrence worked with Sandra Bullock on “Forces of Nature” and the “Miss Congeniality” movies, and he previously directed Bullock and Hugh Grant in “Two Weeks’ Notice.” He keeps trying to create a romantic comedy that won’t fizzle out before the final stretch, and this one comes closer than most.
Still, there’s no denying that once it gets to the inevitable “boy loses girl” turn in the road, it’s fresh out of ideas. Just when the picture seems ready to take off, with Sophie registering a sudden attack of “creative differences” while Cora stages an appallingly pretentious concert, it fails to launch.
Barrymore and Grant do have an easy chemistry that makes their characters’ attraction to each other plausible, and Lawrence develops it by emphasizing one especially long take of the couple sparring on a sidewalk.
“I’m a happy has-been,” Fletcher declares, and he seems utterly sincere in his adjustment to endless compromises. She pushes him to do more with his life, and that clicks too. There’s a give-and-take between the two, whether they’re collaborating on a song or clumsily succumbing to passion, that keeps “Music and Lyrics” from collapsing.