Imagine an alternative Valentine's Day, where the colors are orange and yellow instead of red and pink, and the goal is to celebrate a wonderful friendship struck up through a shared professional goal.
"Music and Lyrics" would be the perfect date movie for that alternative Valentine's Day. But for the occasion most people celebrate, which entails love and romance, it falls short, given the lack of romantic spark between Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore.
That's not to say Grant and Barrymore are ever anything less than easy to watch. Their likability, solo and together, is never in question, and "Music and Lyrics," though comedically mild and too beholden to romantic comedy conventions, moves along well enough.
You almost wish the romantic angle didn't need to be explored, or that the picture could just follow Grant's character, Alex. Because Grant and director-screenwriter Marc Lawrence ("Two Weeks Notice") get everything right about this character.
Alex was part of a Wham!-like pop group in the 1980s. Unfortunately, he was the Andrew Ridgeley to his bandmate's George Michael, and thus the subject of "Where are they now?" queries. The answer is playing county fairs and high school reunions, where women in their 30s and 40s still swoon to his hip thrusts.
"Music and Lyrics" captures the lasting appeal of 1980s male pop bands, the fervor surrounding whom, though never quite Beatlemania, was considerable. Acts such as Duran Duran offered more sophisticated music than the preprocessed boy bands of the '90s while keeping a slightly better grasp on their dignity.
A dead-on facsimile of an '80s music video, complete with geometric backdrop and melodramatic romantic story line, shows Alex in his former glory in the group PoP. These days, he lives in a modest but nicely appointed New York apartment. Having maintained his slim physique, he can make a decent living in an era in which '80s nostalgia is all the rage.
Grant plays Alex with a touch of embarrassment and loads of pragmatism. After a period of feeling sorry for himself, he recognized that he can still, to some degree, to do what he loves. But he gets a shot at truly reviving his career when a young pop star (Haley Bennett) decides to audition songs by retro acts for her new album.
Alex writes music but needs somebody else to write lyrics. While he's collaborating with a lyricist in his apartment, Sophie (Barrymore), who has come to water his plants, contributes her two cents. Alex believes she's a natural lyricist.
Sophie once aspired to be a writer, before a professor (Campbell Scott, effectively chilly) with whom she became involved stole her life story for his best-selling novel. Now she's disappointed and wary, if also effortlessly adorable because Barrymore plays her.
But those expecting loopiness or whimsy from a Barrymore-Grant pairing might be disappointed, since they play more modulated versions of their usual screen selves. Attempts to make Sophie kooky never quite pan out. She's supposed to be sloppy but also hypochondriacal, traits that come from competing schools of movie quirks.
The comic-relief slots go to the pair's very tall sidekicks, Brad Garrett and Kristen Johnston. Though the usually hilarious Garrett is underused as Alex's manager, Johnston is a hoot as Sophie's sister. Married with kids, she still has instant access to the screaming teenage girl within who was Alex's biggest fan. Johnston's crackerjack delivery enlivens the film considerably at moments.
A growing friendship between Alex and Sophie buoys other scenes. They want to benefit from the other's expertise, but also help each other, making the effort to boost each other's confidence. They're good collaborators, even if the song they're hammering out isn't very memorable.
A scene in which they work on a demo offers a glimpse of the creative process, evoking moments in "Hustle & Flow," but without mention of pimps and tricks. Grant and Barrymore show they can sing in key, or close enough to it to be successfully helped by technology.
But they just don't match up romantically, and the reasons are hard to pinpoint.
Whether achieved via kismet, pheromones or a trick of the camera, screen chemistry is just one of those things -- and most noticeable in its absence.
** and 1/2 out of four stars.