Monday, February 09, 2009

Monday Movie Review: Two "and" Romantic Comedies

Music and Lyrics (2007) 7/10
Ira and Abby (2006) 7/10

Music and Lyrics takes the form of a mainstream romantic comedy, following its conventions while being exceptionally witty and good-natured, and having some smart things to say.

Ira and Abby takes the form of an indieromantic comedy, following those conventions while being charming and clever, and having some unusual things to say.

Both movies are populated by Manic Pixie Dream Girls, and hello, was that a type that needed to be defined or what? But the thing about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that she serves the needs of the male protagonist, just as the Magical Negro serves the needs of the white protagonist. In these movies, though, the women have lives of their own, and what's interesting is that both are paying a price for being quirky and oddball, and so they are given more depth.

More... In Music & Lyrics, Drew Barrymore plays Sophie, and when Hugh Grant's Alex first meets her, he is at once sure she's crazy. Which she seems to be, but soon we learn her oddball style is a response to a broken heart and wounded ego. An affair with a professor left her publicly humiliated and with no belief in the talents her mentor once nurtured. So she's quirky, and this is a lot like Alex's own quirkiness—an 80s has-been who takes nonchalant pleasure in capitalizing on his has-been status. The movie has the kind of pleasant and rapid wit Hugh Grant movies are known for, at the same time, it is somewhat serious about these people. They have injured self-esteem they cover up by seeming to celebrate the tiny corners they live in. Alex sings at amusement parks for his aging fans, Sophie waters plants, and neither exercises the talent they have until Alex gets an unusual opportunity to write a song and realizes Sophie can help him.

So, this is a conventional trajectory. Meet cute followed by thrown together followed by come together a little bit, then break apart, then reunite LALA! as the credits roll. But there's a lot to love inside the arc. Brad Garrett as Alex's manager, for one. A lot of really snappy dialogue, for another. High standards, for a third, meaning, you know, nothing like the extended and painful bathroom "joke" I was unfortunate enough to see in Two Weeks Notice. Also, the break-up is over artistic ethics, the commentary about the music business is clever, and so on.

Ira and Abby, being an indie, is more deeply committed to its quirkiness, and yet in some ways, is more conventional. Ira (Chris Messina) is the classic protagonist playing opposite the Manic Pixie Dream Girl; he's nerdy, nervous, pessimistic, and fearful. He's very much Woody Allen to Abby's (Jennifer Westfeldt) Diane Keaton.

Abby's quirks are costly to her as well. She is an extraordinarily open person, giving herself compassionately to everyone she meets. Who else could reach Ira, as closed off as he is? (Thus, serving the protagonist.) But her openness means she is too giving to be successful at her work, and her past heartbreaks are immense. This is considerably more interesting than the magical girl who shows up, changes the hero's life, and, I dunno, glimmers.

Abby comes by her quirks honestly, as we realize when we meet her parents (Fred Willard and Frances Conroy). Very much about family, the movie gives us two rich sets of parents (Ira's are Judith Light and Robert Klein), and when Ira and Abby meet and marry in a whirlwind, the families become intertwined.

Neither movie breaks beyond the boundaries of its own conventions to become a classic for the ages. Certainly, there are classic romantic comedies (It Happened One Night, Moonstruck, and Four Weddings and a Funeral come to mind, from three different decades), but if you just want a pleasant diversion with a higher than average intelligence quotient, either of these will do.

(Cross and Post)