Feeling good about second chances: Begin Again, Music and Lyrics, The Rewrite

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Yesterday I watched two very similar dramedies, both set in the entertainment industry. Combined with a third that I had seen a few years earlier, they could form a loose triple-header strung together on the common theme of feel-good films about second chances.

The films are Begin Again from award-winning Irish director John Carney and two Hugh Grant films –Music and Lyrics and The Rewrite – directed by his long-time collaborator Marc Lawrence.

All three have a formulaic storyline of an entertainment industry whiz kid fallen on hard times. He has hit a creative roadblock and is no longer in demand. His personal relationships are as troubled as his art and he must now go back to the basics to get his life back on track. A chance meeting with a bright but unsettled younger talent helps him rediscover his passion and connect with himself as a person.

The best of the three is Begin Again (2013). This is because the two leads – Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley – are top class actors who bring their A-game to every film they act in, be it epic or intimate, dramatic or comedic. The supporting cast of James Corden, Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener act like real people and are relatable and engaging. There’s the additional joy of seeing music industry icons Adam Levine, Mos Def and Cee Lo Green in various significant roles. John Carney is clearly a director who can bring the best out of actors and non-actors alike. Mr. Carney made waves in 2007 with the musically-themed drama Once, which went on to win an Oscar for Best Song. So, it comes as no surprise that the songs in this film (performed by Adam Levine and Keira Knightley) are also genuinely good. One of the songs, Lost Stars received an Oscar nomination for Best Song. I also loved Ruffalo’s 1963 Jaguar Mark X; I’d love to drive around town in one of those!

The two Hugh Grant-Marc Lawrence films are not in the same league, but sail along on the strength of Grant’s charm, his chemistry with his female leads and some interesting/ eccentric characters providing comic relief.

In Music and Lyrics (2007), Hugh Grant plays one-half of a successful 1980’s pop duo called PoP! (yes, it’s a send up of Wham!), now bereft of work. He takes on a song-writing job for an up-and-coming teenage pop singer Cora Corman (played by Haley Bennett in her acting and singing debut). Afflicted by writer’s block and running out of time, Grant discovers that his temporary housekeeper (Drew Barrymore) has studied creative writing and seems to have a knack for writing pop lyrics. As is normal with romantic comedies, the two fall in love, then come into conflict and eventually reconcile to a happy ending. As in the case of Begin Again, the film had some unexpectedly catchy songs, including Way Back Into Love, performed in the film by Grant and Barrymore and then again by Bennett in concert. All credit to Hugh Grant for singing those songs in spite of his limited vocal range (though not as painful as listening to Pierce Brosnan singing in Mamma Mia!); Hollywood actors have yet to discover the Indian film industry’s solution of playback singing.

Seven years later, Grant reunited with director Marc Lawrence for The Rewrite, which repeats the same formula, this time with Grant playing a washed up Hollywood script writer who takes up a teaching job at a university to pay the bills. Marisa Tomei is the accidental love interest who helps him rediscover both the joys of writing and some much-needed humility. Ironically, for a movie about script writing, this movie’s screenplay is rather shallow and I almost switched off after 20 minutes. Eventually, the actors themselves save the film, Besides Grant and Tomei, seasoned character actors J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney liven things up as senior faculty members and former Australian soap star Bella Heathcote has an interesting role as a student who competes with Tomei for Grant’s attention.

Of course, all these films pander to the male fantasy of having an attractive young woman who looks up to the middle-aged man and cares enough to both inspire and challenge him; a change from his existing relationships where the give-and-take seems to have fossilized. From that perspective, Begin Again avoided the cliché of a romantic hook-up; there is a brief moment towards the end when this seems possible, but better sense prevails and the characters stay good friends. Several years ago, Mr. Holland’s Opus explored a similar relationship between Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) and his charismatic, talented music student.

Regardless, these movies do give us some insights into the entertainment industry and the creative process. And more importantly, these guilty pleasures with their charming leads, catchy tunes and light comedy provide enjoyable escapist entertainment (Hugh Grant’s character from The Rewrite would tell you that last bit’s an alliteration).

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