Cole Porter in Panties
All you do is show up, with your long hair and your breasts and make sure your cleavage is down to here, now, because, 2006, it’s buck naked, Wednesdays.
—Erykah Badu, “How to Create a Sexy Pop Star”
Alex (Hugh Grant) calls himself a “happy has-been.” It’s a joke, of sorts, though his interlocutors—a crew of producers seeking his participation in a new reality TV show called Battle of the ‘80s Has-Beens—don’t get it. Alex appears mostly resigned to his lot, an erstwhile member of a band called Pop!, with requisite feathery hair, puffy shirts, and tight pants. Alex is best known for a certain dance move named the “hip pop,” which regularly sent female fans a-swooning. You get a quick glimpse of the hip hop during the music video for “Pop Goes My Heart.” The video opens Music and Lyrics, in which Alex suffers a heart attack when his girl dumps him. Rushed through hospital corridors, he dies on his gurney, only to rise up into some vague sort of heaven with the heartless girl, now all smiles and clutching his arm against a pretty, soft-lit landscape.
It’s quite the brilliant start for a movie that’s all about the grand and giddy artifice of pop. And it illustrates just why Alex is so acutely self-aware. Unable to escape just how silly he was, he’s “happy” enough to play fairgrounds for now aging fans (who still know all his lyrics), offering up little bits of poppy elegance and glimpses of his hips in tight pants. Though he considers doing Battle for the chance to sing again on TV, he draws a line when he learns he’s got to box an opponent to get the chance to do so.
Learning within minutes that Alex is funny, smart, self-deprecating, and retains a measure of integrity, you’re inclined to like him. It helps that he’s played by Grant, who has patented the part of the gracious, stammery, witty guy. And, as calculating and smug as Alex can be, he’s also loyal and warm, especially when it comes to his manager and best friend, the pleasantly galumphy Chris (Brad Garrett). With all this going for him, you’re apt to lament but also mostly forgive Alex’s adherence to formula.
That would involve a love interest and several To start, he jumps at the chance to write a song for Cora (Haley Bennett), the current “biggest act in the universe,” a Britney-esque blond with limited skills and a gargantuan sense of entitlement (when she offers to show party guest Alex the “roof,” she explains to him that it’s “upstairs”). No matter that she’s an airhead; she’s rich and inordinately powerful, and a go-ahead from Cora will change his life. He just wants another chance to write the perfect pop song, the sort of song he calls “dinner,” compared to the many “deserts” he devised while composing for Pop!
SCOTT PORTER as Colin and HUGH GRANT
as Alex Fletcher
Trouble is, Alex is a composer, not a lyricist. This occasions his meet-cute. While working on a song with an “edgy,” scruffy-faced, perennially angry lyricist for hire (“Get it up: I’m a bad hot witch!”), he’s conveniently visited by a new “plant lady,” Sophie (Drew Barrymore), who happens to be a “born” lyricist. You know this because she can’t help but hum a few corrective, less corrosive lyrics when she hears Edgy Guy’s proposal (“With some magic, I just might switch”). Alex is smitten. At least, he thinks he’s found the ideal writing partner: “You are Cole Porter in panties,” he rhapsodizes, before recalling that Porter had his own panties. To finish the song and win the chance to duet with Cora, he pursues sweet Sophie until she agrees: they work into wee hours, conjuring magic, munching snacks, and confessing secrets. He’s even almost enchanted when they argue. When he suggests that the music is more important than the lyrics, Sophie makes the right assessment: “It’s the combination of the two that’s the magic,” she smiles. Bing!
You know exactly where this so-very-charming professional relationship will go. Still, the movie persists with its insipid business, including helpfully feelings-exposing conversations between the couple-to-be and their seconds. Alex and Chris wonder at Sophie’s “craziness,” while she confides in her diehard Pop! fan older sister, Rhonda (Kristen Johnston). Sophie’s initial skepticism about working with Alex has no chance against Rhonda’s total worship of his youthful fluffiness. Still, much like Alex himself, Rhonda recognizes the limits of her 20-years-ago desires, and cautions her little sister to confirm that he has made a “passionate” commitment to her, something more mundane and earnest than the once titillating, now slightly creaky hip pop.
HUGH GRANT as Alex Fletcher and
HALEY BENNETT as Cora Corman
Alex finds a roundabout way to make such a declaration when he learns of Sophie’s Own Past. Unlike Alex, she’s unable to live side-by-side with her over-displayed former self, rather too conveniently appearing as a bestselling novel in a bookstore window. This jerry-rigged impediment to her future happiness with Alex incarnates, as she puts it, her knowledge of “what it’s like to love with a shadow overhead.” Written by her former creative writing professor and lover, Sloan (Campbell Scott), the novel paints Sophie as a no-talent, insidiously nutty schemer who stalked and seduced him to advance her career, blah blah blah. As she has absorbed this version of herself without much fight, when she and Alex spot Sloan in a restaurant (again, way too conveniently), she wilts. Though the encounter occasions Alex’s moderately entertaining effort to defend her honor, the plot device is strained, with Scott—like Grant and Barrymore—playing the character he plays most often, in his case, a cad of the superficial sort.
All this business is absurd and predictable, as romantic comedies tend to be. Still, Music and Lyrics has Barrymore. Granted, Sophie has no “That’s kicking your ass” moment, and her righteous determination to preserve her lyrics in the face of crass commercial interests is decidedly naïve (as Alex puts it, “In the end, it’s all just business”). Worse, Cora is an increasingly feeble joke, what with her twin resolves to please her sexy-show-demanding fans and maintain her trendily “Middle Eastern” meditative persona (Sophie describes one egregious rehearsal as “That orgasm set to the Gandhi soundtrack”), embodying the film’s primary critique of pop music as an industry without “passion” or intelligence. But Barrymore not only brings her own history (she has, uniquely, made Adam Sandler, Jimmy Fallon, and Luke Wilson bearable romantic leads), but also makes Sophie’s conventional earnestness into something else, part endearing and part self-knowing. This is Barrymore’s burden, that she consistently resists generic business even as she makes it tolerable. The next step is to challenge the business outright.