Monday, January 19, 2009

August Rush Review

Perhaps better known as “that movie the Academy nominated last year for Best Song that wasn’t Once or Enchanted,” August Rush actually had a lot of people talking about it in the weeks before its release last year. By the time it came out, though, it had all but completely disappeared from everyone’s radar, and it was only recently that I remembered it had even come out at all. It was with a fair amount of skepticism that I finally sat down to watch it.

The movie follows an orphan named Evan (Freddie Highmore) who, convinced that his parents are still alive, runs away from his stifling orphanage to New York City to find them. The sounds of everyday life are music to him – literally – which he takes as a sign that his parents are trying to find him as well. The reality, as we see in scenes featuring Evan’s mother and father (played by Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers), is that neither one knows of Evan’s existence. If that seems a little hard to believe, then let me assure you that it’s actually explained pretty well.

Long story short, mom and dad have gone on to lead very different lives from the music-oriented ones of their youth (mom was a concert cellist, and dad was in a rock band). The movie does an effective job of associating this departure from their dreams with the emotional burdens they both carry. Their scenes are laden with the regret and nostalgia that comes with the feeling that true love has slipped away forever, but they stop short of ever becoming too sentimental.

Robin Williams plays “Wizard,” a strange man who runs a sort of commune for child street performers and who, after finding Evan, takes the boy under his wing. Despite a lack of musical training, Evan is able to pick up and play the guitar like a pro. People flock to see him perform, and Wizard (in a Mrs. Doubtfire-inspired moment) gives him a unique stage name: August Rush. But while the music itself is exciting, this part of the movie introduces the story’s most problematic aspect.

Evan’s near-instantaneous ability to play and understand music is nothing short of ridiculous, and his proficiency with all things musical only gets more unrealistic as the story goes on. At one point, still without any formal training, he reads and writes pages upon pages of sheet music without a hitch. August Rush tries to explain itself by portraying Evan as a musical prodigy in the story’s latter half (even going so far as to have the boy enroll in Juilliard), but it never quite dispels the feeling that something about Evan’s talents is a bit off.

As for the song that got the Academy’s notice, it’s good but I actually enjoyed many of the other songs in August Rush a lot more. The music that closes the film is particularly moving, and I imagine its instrumental nature is what kept it from garnering as much attention.

The movie sort of beats the audience over the head with its message – music is the universal language that brings people together – and in doing so it casts a number of smaller plot points by the wayside. I was particularly disappointed that a subplot involving Terrence Howard’s character, a well-intentioned man from Child Services looking for Evan, was never fully resolved. The movie also never explains how Evan manages to attend such a prestigious school without revealing his true identity or even being recognized by anyone (the Howard character places “Missing” posters with Evan’s face on them all over the city).

But August Rush doesn’t do these things intentionally, and in the end the movie feels more like a labor of love than a two-hour cliché manufactured by the studio system. It comes off as over-earnest rather than overbearing, and as a result the flaws in its story can be at least partially forgiven. At the same time, though, I can’t help but wish its makers had applied that extra layer of polish to make it into something truly great. As it stands, August Rush is good, wholesome entertainment that does just enough right to make up for its shortcomings. While it probably won’t be remembered for much more than having a great soundtrack, it does tug at the heartstrings enough to make watching it a worthwhile experience.

Rating: ***


Andy said...

What? Actual praise for "wholesome" entertainment? I am impressed. Seriously, I loved the movie, and I tolerated the cheesier aspects quite well. Also, I heard somewhere the August Rush story was based on a real life UCC pianist from the Chicago suburbs who's still at large on Marquette's campus . . . that might just be rumor I started, though.

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