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‘Music and Lyrics’

"Music and Lyrics" is a weird little hybrid of a romantic comedy that’s simultaneously too fluffy and not whimsical enough.

Writer-director Marc Lawrence is definitely aiming for a retro ’40s feel, with his bustling New York setting and witty characters who repeatedly burst into song. But he’s infused the movie with a forced contemporary flavouring, including a Britney Spears-style pop diva and references to performers like Shakira and Justin Timberlake, and he gets too bogged down with industry types and their business meetings.

The songs are catchy, though _ especially "Way Back Into Love," the tune Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore’s characters craft together, which will be stuck in your head like a psychotic episode for days if not weeks to come. (It’s playing in this particular critic’s mental jukebox during the writing of this review. Somebody please make it stop!)

And it’s nice to see Grant aging gracefully. Yes, he’s only 46, but he’s learned to wear his years well. He’s moved past the recent bad-boy era of the "Bridget Jones" movies and seems well aware that he’s far removed from the charmingly befuddled persona on which he based his career. That’s charming in itself.

As washed-up ’80s singer Alex Fletcher _ formerly part of a band called PoP that’s clearly and hilariously modelled after Wham! _ Grant is self-deprecating but he’s also not afraid to look pathetic, lonely and a little sad. It actually makes him more attractive.

A vision of PoP’s heyday _ a music video for their synthesized hit "PoP! Goes My Heart" _ serves as the film’s side-splitting opening, as well as its high point. Rather than being overtly campy, the video is so dead-on reflective of the genre with its big hair, skinny ties and bad key effects, you could easily imagine it playing on VH1 Classic.

(It’s almost as if Lawrence, who previously directed Grant in "Two Weeks Notice," knew the video was the best part of the movie; he plays it again at the end as if to say, "Remember this? This is the thing you thought was so funny an hour and a half ago.")

Alex is Andrew Ridgeley to his former musical partner’s more successful George Michael type, and is now stuck playing county fairs and high school reunions to crowds of giddily nostalgic thirtysomething soccer moms.

But he also has a younger fan in singing star Cora Corman (Haley Bennett in her confident film debut), who wants Alex to write a new song for her with the title "Way Back Into Love," based on her favourite book about spirituality. (Cora takes herself very seriously but has no idea what she’s talking about.)

Of course he only has a couple of days to do this, and in another contrivance of the genre, it’s the cute woman who waters his plants who ends up helping him.

Barrymore’s Sophie Fisher absent-mindedly mutters potential lines for the song while Alex struggles with melodies at the piano. In no time they’re working side by side, and from there it doesn’t take much longer for them to end up underneath the piano, naked and rolling around (which actually sounds quite painful).

While the difference in their characters (and ages) may seem unexpected, everything about Sophie’s character makes her a cliche. She’s neurotic, clumsy, damaged and guarded in the wake of a bad breakup. She also dresses in jaunty, bohemian vests and scarves. And naturally, she drowns every plant she touches.

Since this is a romantic comedy, though, there must be some arbitrary event or misunderstanding that keeps Alex and Sophie apart before their eventual reunion (at a sold-out Madison Square Garden concert, no less). Brad Garrett as Alex’s manager and Kristen Johnson as Sophie’s older sister help keep them occupied, with Campbell Scott making a brief appearance as the writing professor who broke Sophie’s heart.

A lot of this romantic downtime is extraordinarily draggy, and it makes "Music and Lyrics" feel longer than its manageable running time. Every once in a while, though, it has a good beat and you can dance to it.

Two and a half stars out of four.