Music and Lyrics is not a milestone in cinema history, but after the plethora of alleged comedies we’ve been getting lately, this feel-fine rom-com with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore is a perfect warm-hearted, heart-shaped antidote to the winter blahs. It is also the perfect date-flick valentine.
The affable Mr. Grant, who is finally showing his age (agreeably, I must add) by playing something besides Peter Pan in an Armani suit, is Alex Fletcher, a washed-up rock ’n’roll has-been who once pounded his pelvis through countless hits in a 1980’s group called PoP! It’s been almost 20 years since he last made the charts, his wallet is as thin as a lemon twist in a green-apple martini, and he can’t even get a one-night gig at Knotts Berry Farm. Suddenly he’s approached by a current pop diva named Cora to write a song for her new CD. Cora, played with a style bordering on narcolepsy by newcomer Haley Bennett, like a hilarious combo of all the brainless Britneys and Jessicas on the Grammy scene today, wants to introduce the song at Madison Square Garden. Composing a new hit could be the comeback Alex has been praying (and braying) for, and he’s only got five days to do it. All he needs is a lyricist.
Enter Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), the neurotic plant lady who waters his ferns. Sophie is not in the mood to write love songs. She’s still nursing a broken heart after being dumped by an N.Y.U. professor (Campbell Scott) who used the intimate details of their affair as material for his latest novel. The first half of the movie centers on the diabolical ways with which the desperate Alex talks the reluctant Sophie into becoming his writing partner. Think Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager and They’re Playing Our Song, with movie stars and production values. The second half follows them through all-night work jams, heated recording sessions, music videos, bouts of falling in and out of bed (and love), and ends up on the night of the big event at the Garden, where Alex bumps and grinds his way to stardom and ties together all the loose ends with the undulating verve of a middle-aged, arthritic Tom Jones. The vulgar, cheesy and idiotic rock numbers are the highlights of the movie, a terrific parody of the junk kids watch today on MTV, and Mr. Grant hams his way through them like Mick Jagger after a hip replacement.
There’s a lot to like here. Despite the silliness of the plot mechanics, Music and Lyrics, written and directed by Marc Lawrence, has a script that is admirably rooted in believability instead of sight gags and Will & Grace one-liners that nobody in real life could ever possibly say. A further advantage is the two stars, who demonstrate a chemistry that is rare in most of today’s comedy fiascos. Who needs jokes when you’ve got a pair this huggable? With her steno pad and her watering can, Ms. Barrymore is a marzipan kewpie doll waiting to get munched. The furtive, scruffy, self-adoring charm that Mr. Grant has been getting by on for years works to his advantage. He’s so retro he even has one of those waterbeds that come equipped with a barf bag. The singing and dancing in the overproduced musical finale is hilariously bad, and he’s a clumsy riot doing both—in front of thousands of extras. Nobody is more surprised than me, but I have to admit I found Music and Lyrics unexpectedly warm and ingratiating.
Into the Breach
Breach is a cold, gimlet-eyed dossier on the surveillance and eventual arrest of F.B.I. agent and secret Soviet spy Robert Hanssen. It’s about how the craftiest spy in the bureau was trapped and outsmarted by a boy young enough to be his son, and everything in it is the truth. It even begins with Attorney General John Ashcroft (remember him?) announcing Hanssen’s capture. But the story of what happened up to that point makes for an adventure so hair-raising that it challenges credulity.
Now considered the most dangerous enemy agent in the history of the bureau, Hanssen gave the appearance of a dour, no-nonsense, religiously obsessed family man. He was the last person in Washington anyone could suspect as a traitor, a security breach and a mole. But a special unit within the bureau had been following his clandestine movements for years, unable to nail him in the act of espionage. Meticulously written, realistically acted and suspensefully directed, Breach tells the story of the spy who eluded world experts and the young, ambitious office clerk who did what nobody else could do in bringing him to justice. Chris Cooper is magnificent as Hanssen, and Ryan Phillippe gets the role of his career as Eric O’Neill, the junior G-man whose patience, diligence and strategy outwitted and outlasted everyone else to beat him at his own game, risking his own life to do it.
At first, Eric thinks he’s been recruited by an F.B.I. task-force officer (Laura Linney, wasted here, but both efficient and effective as always) to spy on a sexual deviant. But when Hanssen takes a paternal interest, driving him to church, welcoming him and his wife into the family, and relying on him for the simplest trusts, Eric comes to like the guy. One creepy thing the movie does effectively is demonstrate how real spies are not comic-book villains, and Chris Cooper’s character is neither black nor white; he’s the perfect chiaroscuro. When Eric finally learns how many state secrets his boss has passed and how many deaths he has caused, it comes down on his conscience like a jackhammer. Downloading Hanssen’s Palm Pilot, watching Hanssen and his kind, thoughtful wife (Kathleen Quinlan) in pornographic videos, detaining him in traffic while the bureau searches his automobile, breaking into and resealing his mail while trying to hide his mission from his own wife (Caroline D’Havernas), Eric sweats through hell. The movie builds Hitchcockian tension leading up to the decisive finale, when Eric finally seals his boss’s fate on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2001—a day that will live in F.B.I. history. There’s an even bigger shock yet to come, but why spoil it? This is one of those movies to which you might want to bring smelling salts.
The painstaking moment-to-moment details and the claustrophobic device of putting the viewer inside the camera as the salient facts unfold are trademarks of the gifted director Billy Ray, who made the critically acclaimed journalism thriller Shattered Glass. As the film’s stoic moral compass, Ryan Phillippe works harder than ever, achieves more than I thought possible and earns respect. The uneasy feeling of claustrophobia extends to the eyes and pinched, painful expressions in Chris Cooper’s masterful portrayal of the enigmatic, elusive Hanssen. Breach is a tough, bare-knuckle look at the new cyber-terrorism that holds you captive from start to finish.
Ben Vereen and Baby Jane Dexter are two performers as far apart as Anchorage and Austin. Yet they share kindred souls in their passionate approach to entertainment, and like space heaters, are both currently warming cold nights after dark on the Manhattan cabaret scene.
At Feinstein’s at the Regency, Mr. Vereen lacks the room to illustrate the precision steps that made him a Bob Fosse protégé, but he can still wiggle his thighs with the elegance of the late Avon Long. He’s not a jazz singer, but he does have an undeniable sense of rhythm and time that even improves banal songs from Hair, Pippin and the awful Jesus Christ Superstar that seem irrelevant out of context. Most of his song list aims to please the undemanding tastes of the musically unsophisticated (they are there in full force, shouting back from the expensive tables), but in his tributes to Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., he strikes gold with ballads. Oddly, an over-arranged “Misty” is accompanied only by a snare drum without the snares, but most of the act is refreshingly devoid of frills. It’s autobiographically structured, but he doesn’t dwell on adversity, like the near-fatal 1992 motor accident that resulted in a stroke, or the predictions that he could never work again. I guess this is the season when every singer in town will be coughing up the dreary, overrated and ossified “My Funny Valentine.” He does it in three tempos, accompanied only by the thud of a bass, when even one is more than enough. Still, it’s always pleasant to spend time in the company of a survivor, a pro, and a performing prince. Ben Vereen is all three.
Holding court at the hot new Metropolitan Room at Gotham through Feb. 24, Baby Jane Dexter reminds me of colored lights, forbidden absinthe and big brass beds. If she’d lived in the New Orleans red-light district in a previous era, she would have been the most popular white girl in Storyville. Her specialty is hotfoot barrelhouse and wrist-slashing blues, which she wails like nobody’s business, and her fans lap it up like howling hound dogs, hungry for more. I always liked her raucous style, but I never expected to hear standards from the Great American Songbook in her repertoire. On this, the very best act of her career, she’s finally discovered classics by Kern, Hart and Johnny Mercer, too. And I’m happy to report that her lived-in baritone gives them a personal spin as unique as it is intense. On “Make Believe,” she phrases behind the beat. On “Some Enchanted Evening” there’s no beat at all; she doesn’t even follow Richard Rodgers’ melody. But she makes you feel the subtext of the emotions hiding in Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. She sings a Harold Arlen song about a reefer man, a Leslie Bricusse–Anthony Newley song about a candy man, and a Lieber-Stoller song about a “Love Potion No. 9” with equal grit and aplomb. She also tells about her own 12-step program to overcome a fatal addiction to … frozen hot chocolates at Serendipity. Simply hilarious. Then, without a bathroom break, she wafts dreamily into a rapturous “Fools Rush In” heartbreaking enough to knock your socks off. The best way to appreciate her unusual musical candor is to stop resisting her and give in. Baby Jane just kind of overwhelms you. And bless her pointed head, she does not sing “My Funny Valentine.”