Monday, 5 March 2007

Music and Lyrics (2007)

Dance dance revolution, the 70s edition!

After nearly a decade of Adam Sandler and American Pie, then followed by remakes of 1930s and 50s films, a sane movie buff would have begun to write off Hollywood's ability to produce decent romantic comedies. There has to be something wrong when the words "romantic comedy" bring to mind either gross-out, flatulence fuelled flicks or badly remade movies that don't measure up to the originals - either way, it's probable that the industry no longer has the writing and acting talent to produce really funny and smart romantic comedies, despite having the producing talent and the money managers at studios who believe they do. And all it takes is an unassuming and decent comedy to demonstrate clearly what's wrong with the previous decade of Hollywood romcom filmmaking, and that film is Music and Lyrics.

Romantic comedies are a stock genre, formulaic as anything, but still it's common to goof them up. So here are the rule again, just to make sure future writers don't lose their way after thinking "Boy meets girl, and they should get together at the end."

Rule no. 1: At the very least, you should cast a couple who have good screen chemistry. That doesn't mean that they're supposed to be dating in real life, people! And that doesn't mean that they both look good beside each other. It means, rather, that the personality quirks of the couple actually play off each other. Here, Drew Barrymore plays one of her patented mildly eccentric and borderline but within the boundaries of safety screwball girls. That's quite safe fare, but what makes Music and Lyrics great is Marc Lawrence's idea to pair her off with Hugh Grant, who plays another self-deprecating character with a rather off-centre charm.

Rule no. 2: Even though it's a romantic comedy, it helps to have some real comedy in it. In Music and Lyrics, Hugh Grant is a has-been, the "nobody knows where they are now" half of a Wham!-style group who is resigned to performing at county fairs, class reunions, and carnivals. If he plays his cards right, he might end up as a decent nostalgia act 10 years from now, singing to screaming females (menopausal by then) at Disney. But that's if he has a career by then, as his manager points out that there are always "new old acts" popping up. His potential break is to land a duet with his biggest admirer, an underaged, oversexed singer who looks like Britney, Christina Aguilera, and Dharma (from Dharma and Greg) rolled together. Then, you realise that Music and Lyrics is not going to be just a romantic comedy, but a comedy about the music business as well.

Rule no. 3: Character interaction is important in a romantic comedy. No, that doesn't mean having the lead actors stare dreamily into each other's eyes, or go through a process of meeting the parents and friends. No. You wonder what sort of dialogue and situations a hypochondriac, eccentric indoor gardener (Barrymore) would have with an aging has-been pop star when the latter realises that the former has the talent for spontaneous and interesting lyric writing (like all loopy people, she has a degree in Literature) - and then you realise that this will be a comedy that relies more on witty dialogue, the odd couple pairing between Barrymore and Grant (and between both of them and Haley Bennett as the even loopier Britney-Christina monster), and lots of digs and jokes about 1980s music and fashion.

Music and Lyrics succeeds beyond the low romcom expectations because it is genuinely fun (the scenes where Barrymore and Grant hammer out a song have a certain manic energy about them that sharpens the humour), and genuinely funny (the filmmakers clearly love music, and their digs at both the New Wave/Romantics era as well as modern pop ring so true). It succeeds because the filmmakers don't pander to audience expectations to oversell the romance - at no point in this movie will you feel that Marc Lawrence will hit you over the head with the message that the two characters are destined for each other and will be in a state of romantic wedded bliss on a sunkissed island. And because Lawrence wisely recognises the humour in the music industry setting can be greater than the humour in any typical romantic comedy, Music and Lyrics ends up funnier than it should be.

First published at incinemas on 8 March 2007

No comments: