If you injected sugar directly into your veins, I still doubt you’d end up with a sensation more sickly sweet than you’d get from watching August Rush. In some ways, I’m at a loss to describe this movie. On the surface, it looks like a conventional story, but it doesn’t play like one. This is the kind of picture that turns you into an uncontrollable commentator; so often is it confounding that you may not be able to avoid talking to the screen as you watch.
Freddie Highmore stars as Evan, a young orphan who lives in a school for boys. He is the product of concert cellist Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell) and struggling rock musician Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who had a brief liaison before Lyla’s stern father whisked her away from romantic temptation to focus on her career. When Lyla delivered young Evan, the not-so-proud grandpa gave the kid away and told his daughter that she’d had a stillborn. Nice guy, huh?
Evan is a musical prodigy who hears tunes in nature. He also believes that he can hear the music of his unknown parents calling him, despite having long been told that they are dead. Running away from the boys’ school, he falls in with Wizard (Robin Williams), a…well, what is he anyway? Wizard has a cabal of talented child musicians whom he forces to busk on the New York City streets so he can take a large chunk of the money that passers-by throw them. In Evan, Wizard sees a gold mine, but the kid is smart enough to know when he’s being exploited so he runs off to join Julliard instead. Meanwhile, Lyla and Louis hear music too, which leads them each on a trip toward destiny.
I doubt that I have made this sound as corny as it plays.
August Rush is clearly a fantasy yet, for my taste, it doesn’t do enough to establish the fact that it takes place in a fantasy universe. At some level, it wants us to take this plot seriously, which is ultimately its undoing. Too many things happen without explanation at the exact moment the script requires them too. For instance, when Evan (who is given the stage name “August Rush” by Wizard) needs to know how to play guitar, he simply picks it up and plays as though he’s been doing it for years. Later, he learns to become a piano virtuoso in a matter of seconds, and after being taught the basic notes on a keyboard, he suddenly composes a symphony. (“How did he know that was a sixteenth note?” my wife astutely wondered aloud as Evan is shown physically composing.) And no sooner does he set foot inside Julliard than they are scheduling a public performance of his symphony. Doesn’t anyone wonder where this boy’s parents are?
Here’s the best way I can describe how the movie plays: You know when you see a preview for a new film? You get a series of short scenes that provide a sense of the overall arc of the story, yet you don’t exactly know how everything connects together. Well, August Rush kind of feels like a 2-hour coming attractions preview. Lots of fragmented stuff happens, without ever connecting the dots in between.
I hesitate to call August Rush a “bad” movie, because that word isn’t really accurate. Misguided is more like it. It tries so hard to be magical and meaningful that it completely sidesteps matters of logic and reason. It also does such a fundamentally poor job of establishing its characters that little they do has any real meaning. This is especially true of Richard Jeffries (Terrence Howard), a Child Protective Services worker who occasionally wanders through but seems to have no direct relevance to anything else.
Then there’s Robin Williams, who has somehow become a liability to every film in which he appears. The Wizard character is sketchy to begin with, but whose idea was it to cast Williams in this role? Despite the multiple ear piercings and Elvis sideburns, Williams doesn’t even attempt to disappear into character. He shows up looking and acting like, well, Robin Williams in a ridiculous costume.
August Rush was directed by Kirsten Sheridan who co-wrote the screenplay (and was the inspiration) for her Oscar-nominated father Jim’s movie In America. As a first-time director, she makes a lot of beginner’s mistakes in trying to overcompensate on the musical numbers. Her incessantly flashy approach to filming these scenes betrays her inability to trust the story. Every time Evan picks up an instrument, the camera starts to swirl and the editing gets choppier. This problem occasionally extends to the conversational scenes as well. In some scenes, there’s a different camera angle with each new line of dialogue.
For an example of this movie’s complete opposite, check out the Irish indie film Once. It more believably and movingly made the same point about the power music has to connect the emotions of people. It also is a marvel of minimalism in the musical sequences, proving that watching someone perform a heartfelt song is infinitely more gripping than watching a heavily-stylized montage. I won’t lie – some people will like August Rush in spite of (or even because of) it’s blatant sentimentality. Personally, I’ll take the adventures of Once’s Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy over the orphaned prodigy any day.
( 1/2 out of four)
August Rush is available on DVD in widescreen and fullscreen formats. It is also available on Blu-Ray, and an HD-DVD version is slated for release on April 1.
The DVD also contains about 12 minutes of deleted scenes, several of which feature more of Robin Williams as Wizard.
On a technical level, the film looks and sounds excellent. The Dolby Digital surround sound is really fantastic, giving the songs (which are admittedly the best part) a special energy.
August Rush is rated PG for some thematic elements, mild violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
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