There's probably no such thing as a happy has-been, which lends an extra layer of pathos to shows like Celebrity Fit Club. Most participants seem to think of them as stepping stones, and not the sort of place careers go to cough out a few last breaths before finally expiring. Nonetheless, Hugh Grant makes for a pretty convincing satisfied also-ran in the romantic comedy Music And Lyrics. Two decades out from his first hits with the Wham!-like outfit Pop!, he's watched his solo career sputter as his one-time partner went on to acclaim. But not content to fade into Andrew Ridgeley-esque obscurity, he's let manager Brad Garrett steer him toward a regular routine of state fairs, high-school reunions, and amusement-park appearances. He's still got the body to fill out tight pants, and his middle-aged female fans still scream for the encore. It's an okay life.
Except maybe it isn't. As Garrett warns, "there's new old bands coming up all the time." And when a professed fan (newcomer Haley Bennett, playing an empty-headed pop starlet with a shallow fixation on Eastern spirituality) asks Grant for a song, he feels an unfamiliar stirring of ambition. Trouble is, he's lousy with lyrics. Enter Drew Barrymore, a neurotic part-time plant-waterer suppressing literary ambitions.
We're clearly deep into romantic-comedy territory here, so it's a good thing we're also in the hands of excellent guides. Chemistry on film can't be faked any more easily than in music, and it's a pleasure to watch Grant play off Barrymore and vice versa. As a woman who layers twittery sunshine atop crippling doubt, she's the perfect foil to Grant, whose fake music-video charm has slowly evolved into the real thing over the years. Without really realizing it, he's turned into a man of depth behind that album-cover smile. The film captures the essential element a lot of love stories miss: The sense that these people find something in each other they couldn't find anywhere else.
Music And Lyrics doesn't always give its stars as much help as it should. Writer-director Marc Lawrence has provided a clever enough script, but he doesn't have much interest in toying with the rom-com formula. At one point, Grant makes the distinction between music that works as dinner and music that works as dessert. The film's a bit like a dessert that could have been dinner, particularly with so many winning elements (including songs by Fountains Of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger and a brief appearance from a wickedly sleazy Campbell Scott). But dessert isn't a bad thing either, particularly when it's prepared with this much heart.