Cinema Signal:

Romantic Comedy:
Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre
by Tamar Jeffers Mcdonald
A new Paperback available at Amazon)
. "Music and Lyrics"

He's the music; she's the lyrics. And, one without the other is often as useful as a piano without keys. At least that's the way it is with Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a former 80's pop star barely making his rent with gigs at Knott's Berry Farm, state fairs, amusement parks and just about anything manager Chris Riley (Brad Garrett) can book him on, short of Bar Mitzvahs.

Alex's highly successful career as part of a Wham band known as "PoP," in which hyper singing and hip dancing were the requisites, never required him to write lyrics -- something for which he has little aptitude except for knowing one when he hears it. His special ability is to turn poetic phrases into music, and then to sing and dance the crap out of it.

When pop diva Cora Corman (Haley Bennett), contacts him about writing a new song to be called "Way Back Into Love," as a duet with that retro feel for both of them to perform at Madison Square Garden, he's got to hire a lyricist, pronto. With an impossible deadline of three days to come up with something that works for Cora, there's no time to waste.

To fail is to miss the only big opportunity in years and Alex means to do what it takes.

He immediately gets a lyricist on board and they get to work, but it quickly becomes clear that they're not meshing. They get stumped on a line. The plant lady, Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore) can't help but overhear the session while watering the greenery and offers a lyric. Alex likes it. Petty soon she's coming up with more and she's ringing Alex's bell. Professionally mortified by Alex's taste for a plant waterer's rhymes over his own, Mr. Lyricist fumes with insult as he sails conveniently out the door.

Which leaves Alex at his piano trying like hell to convince Sophie she's got talent, which she denies. She wants no part of working with him on the song. But, however, his urging (and what is, at best, a fabricated plot hurdle) puts them together, working out the new song and, finally, recording it as a temp track for Cora. They manage to get it to her at the deadline, just as she's about to take off on her helicopter. (Think Britney).

Cora dons a headphone and listens. Alex tries to do a sell job in his inimitable repartee' way, but she is so concentrated on the song he gets the message to shut up. All talk ceases. The world stops. People barely breathe. The track ends and Cora removes the earphones. She beams -- loves it. Alex and Sophie are in and, though they don't realize it right away, romance is in the same air as success.

This is par for the romantic-comedy formula with a bit more fantasy and wish-fulfillment -- not to say predictability -- than most realists will be able to abide. But the elements of the story and off-beat subject matter, with the somewhat unexpected chemistry between these two actors, are enough to charm a good solid demographic... as in $millions at the boxoffice.

Grant's patented airy touch with humor is no different than anything else he's done, but it's perfectly attuned to the material. When you're racing horses, after all, you get a stallion and Grant is all that in the charm and humor leading man track. Barrymore, without too much fuss or off notes, fills the femme side with her natural gift to be natural.

The big surprise is Haley Bennett who is not only as hot as all getout, who performs big production numbers with steamy command and enjoyment, she ably channels the stage dynamics of the sexiest popstars out there, channeling Britney Spears with a touch of Madonna. She evinces less assurance on the acting side but writer-director Marc Lawrence keeps her in line by not demanding too much. The utter freshness of it is a coup of casting and it has you asking... where did this goddess spring from?

There are plenty of traps in the scenario, not the least of which is coming up with the kinds of songs that fit the premise, and the difficulty of keeping the romance line clear of innuendo regarding Cora, with whom Alex must perform the love song. Lawrence and his team of pro players strain for balance on his literary tightrope, though not without a few dissonant wobbles for anyone paying attention to matters of human behavior.

The effort shows but kindness forces me to say that that they came out with a fitting diversion for romantics willing to ignore the rough spots and that this variation on a theme is at least as fitting to our good moods and pleasures as any Valentine's Day release. One is also prone to forgive when a romantic comedy employs uncharted subject matter in order to take the edge off inevitable stereotyping.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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