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A reluctant leading man

It's easy to snicker when Hugh Grant says he's unsure about stardom. But maybe that's his appeal.

February 14, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

"EVERYONE wants to be Cary Grant," Cary Grant is supposed to have said. "Even I want to be Cary Grant." But who wants to be Hugh Grant? Not him. He finds this "Hugh Grant creation" that has supplanted him in the world bewildering. And he's not crazy about the pressure, the tabloid hostility, the "stalky" fans or the possibility he'll drag the whole business out too long and end up a parody of himself, either.

For nearly as long as he's been a movie star, Grant has expressed his ambivalence about being a movie star. And every time he expresses this ambivalence in an interview, he's either lambasted by a slew of reporters or his existential gropings are reduced to sound bites, or both. In the infinite loop that is the 24-hour news cycle, this sort of thing can go on forever, and often it does. As a result, Grant has come to be seen as the Michael Jordan of acting -- the guy who can't retire for retiring -- even though to read his interviews is to come away with the impression that he's not trying to hand in his resignation so much as he is trying to work something out.

Maybe it's a coincidence that in his new movie, "Music and Lyrics," Grant plays a guy who used to be famous but isn't anymore. Or maybe, as the latest in self-help mysticism has it, we attract what we project. In any case, he tackles the role with unabashed glee. Grant may be determined not to take the David Lee Roth approach to stardom (hanging on well beyond the point when it is seemly), but he also understands that fleeting as fame may be, the distorting prism is forever.

In the movie, he plays Alex Fletcher, a faded 1980s pop star turned trivia question who is loosely modeled on the half of Wham! that was not George Michael. Whereas "the other guy from Wham!" (who has a name you would still not use instead of "the other guy from Wham!" even if you could remember what it was) followed a failed attempt at a solo career with a failed attempt at an acting career, then married a former member of Bananarama, moved to Cornwall and had kids; the fictional Alex has gone from superstar to joke to professional has-been.

Having spent the '80s doing repetitive hip thrusts in hilarious-in-hindsight music videos, Alex now suffers the dysplastic consequences while performing at state fairs and amusement parks for the middle-aged women who used to be his teenage fans. Still, he is reasonably happy, until his livelihood is threatened by all the up-and-coming young wash-ups from the '90s now bubbling up through the system. Even in the has-been business, youth and novelty trump experience.

"Music and Lyrics," which is not much more than a ritual materialistic fantasy, doesn't exactly delve deeply into the subject of post-celebrity. But like so many entertainment products, it automatically riffs off the culture that produced it. The idea that Grant "reinvented" himself in "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "About a Boy" and feels dread at the thought of becoming a parody of himself, reinvented or not, are two of the tropes most commonly associated with the actor, and both are echoed in the movie echoes. Despite having played all manner of roles before his break-out "Four Weddings and a Funeral," including a campy lordling in Ken Russell's "The Lair of the White Worm" and a great white worm of a straying husband in Roman Polanski's nutsy "Bitter Moon," he could never escape the stammering twit image bestowed by Richard Curtis in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill."

Alex is given the chance to redeem himself and recover his long-lost dignity by writing a song for a reigning pop tart -- career reinvention being the most redemptive and dignified thing an entertainment industry professional can imagine. His chance at love and success as a songwriter arrives in the form of a professional plant waterer (Drew Barrymore) who also happens to be a latent virtuoso lyricist. (It could happen!) Barrymore is just authentic enough to pull off a character this flagrantly bogus. Grant, on the other hand, plays a walking self-parody with the insight and aplomb of a man who's been preparing for the role for years. As a guy who can claim that he never intended to be a movie star and make it sound perfectly plausible, Grant is anticipating a time when he'll no longer have to deal with the alienation of being Hugh Grant, but with the discomfort of having been Hugh Grant instead.

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