[20 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Music is given credit for a lot of things. It forms the soundtrack of our lives, has charms to soothe the savage breast, and expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent. It’s our heartbeat, our sense of spirit, and exposes the depth of our very soul. It is also a callous and cruel mistress, messing with us when we don’t want to be manipulated and infusing us with aspirations we may never attain. Because of its excruciatingly personal and private nature (one man’s Beethoven is another’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard), it makes for a rather tenuous cinematic base. While your story may be sublime, the songs or sounds you use to accent it can come across as atonal and discordant. Oddly enough, the exact opposite happens in Kirsten Sheridan’s disastrous August Rush. The melodic moments are some of the best ever captured on film. Too bad the rest of the narrative is as nauseating as a boy band ballad.
Living life as a picked upon orphan in the last Dickensonian home in all of post-modern society, young August Rush dreams of two things – finding his birth parents and making music. Seems he envisions his biologicals as a famed concert cellist and a punk spunky rock and roller. After a one night stand, a baby boy was born. Not wanting to see his daughter destroy her chances as a virtuoso, her domineering dad tells Lyla Novacek that her son died. At least she’s still part of the process. Moody frontman Louis Connelly tries to reconnect with his post-performance fling, but he’s instantly whisked off on the rest of his tour. Escaping to New York, August is befriended by Arthur, a young street performer. Seems he works for faux foster father figure Wizard. He and his other homeless youth play music around the city, and their glorified guardian collects a percentage. When August turns out to be a prodigy, Wizard smells success. But our undersized hero wants more than that. He could care less about concerts, or Julliard, or the debut of his first rhapsody. He just wants his parents – and his music just might be the means of bringing them together.
Heavy-handed, undeniably saccharine, and about as magical as a clown at a kid’s party, August Rush is an implausible, pus-covered pixie stick. It’s Oliver without the twist, a well-meaning lament fashioned out of arrogance, artificiality, and artlessness. You’d think that someone with director Kirsten Sheridan’s aesthetic lineage (her dad is My Left Foot/In America helmer Jim Sheridan) would be better at making magic out of such melodrama and music. But unfortunately, she’s unsure about how to handle such an ‘adult fairy tale’. Yes, August Rush is one of those films that announces its archetypal intentions from the very start. It salutes you with schmaltz and then turns up the convolutions until the clichés no longer have room to breath. Eventually, they die off in waves of unexplored potentiality, resulting in a literal ghost of a film. There are times when this maudlin muck is so lightweight and wispy, we fear a sudden sneeze from the audience will cause the screen to go blank.
Part of the problem is the story the screenplay sets up. Happenstance usually isn’t this hokey, but for some reason, writers Nick Castle and James Hart want to make every plot point as sappy and sentimental as possible. These are the same guys who turned Peter Pan into an adolescent rude boy filtered through Robin Williams’ hirsute persona in Hook, so perhaps there’s an excuse after all. Speaking of the cinematic Sasquatch, Mrs. Don’tfire is present as the Bono version of Dickens’ child exploiter and he’s about as manipulative as the Victorian pickpocket pimp. We keep waiting for the ghost of Oliver Reed to show up and beat him, and perhaps co-star Keri Russell to death. While the babe in the woods approach is nothing new to moviemaking, Castle and Hart make it so old and moldy that it makes us question such a founding formula. There is never a believable moment of reality or fantasy in this film. Everything feels forced, purposefully played for maximum mawkishness.
This includes the performances. Russell’s Lyla is so empty and unfulfilled she’s like a blow up doll. Even when desperate to locate her child, she comes across as calmly coming apart at the seams. Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Louis is even worse. Morrissey was never this melancholy. Heck, Hamlet’s desperate to rise from the grave and sue this character for giving brooding male leads a bad name. Williams is his usual abominable self, reducing Wizard to the same six body gestures the comedian turned hack actor has milked since the Me Decade, and Terrance Howard (as the Child Protective Services officer) appears to have wandered in from another movie all together. He’s so out of touch with what Sheridan is striving for, you could almost blame the entire fiasco on his non-presence.
Sadly, that status goes to Freddie Highmore. Struggling between an unbelievable American accent and something best considered “Madonna/Tina Turner Ersatz English”, the one time child star stinks up the joint here. Instead of playing naïve and trusting, he’s like a common sense idiot savant. Show him the absolute worst decision to make, and he’ll embrace it like a lost puppy. And this is supposed to be someone with an innate, natural gift for music. True, Sheridan does handle his ‘discovery’ sequences well, the beating of a guitar’s strings, or the chording of a pipe organ having the necessary moments of majesty to move us. But then we come crashing back to quasi-reality, a place where Russell barely fingers her instrument and Rhys Meyers sings like a slightly more macho Billy Corgan. August Rush is not a movie about the harmony in our head as the conceived cacophony that passes for performance in film. Even our title character’s signature symphony is an amalgamation of staid sonic stigmas.
Still, this is the kind of movie that connects with audiences, possibly because they don’t know any better. Tears will well up as the completely predictable ending arrives, mechanical obviousness meshing with last minute personality reforms to destroy anything remotely suggesting cinematic credibility. Frankly, it’s impossible to imagine how any of this could have worked. Sheridan doesn’t demonstrate any real artisanship, but her failings don’t completely undermine the results. No, August Rush fizzles because of several unsuccessful factors. It is sloppily strung together, loaded with characters we don’t care about, and disrespectful to the elements that supposedly make up its meaning. Music may be the universal language, but this film speaks with the most misguided of mother tongues. August Rush is not a flight of fancy. It’s a dissonant plane crash.