Sometimes a piece of music, no matter the genre, sends us on an emotional journey we’re willing to take time and time again. Sometimes a movie about music — Shine from the mid-1990s, for example — has a similar effect. August Rush, in theaters Nov. 21, is not one of those films. No, this teary-eyed tale about an orphaned musical prodigy who goes searching for his parents is a schmaltzy affair from the first note all the way to cringe-worthy final scene.
The unfortunate thing is that somewhere in this mess there is a movie to be made. Director Kirsten Sheridan just didn’t make it. A love story based on a relationship we don’t buy in the first place overshadows the interesting part about a young musical genius. Another problem is that every actor — with the exception of the always-reliable Terrence Howard in a minor role as a Child Services worker — seems to be screaming, “Watch this! I’m acting!” (Even Russell, who gave a strong performance earlier this year in Waitress, struggles with this sappy script.)
The whole thing kicks off at a present-day New York orphanage, where 12-year-old Evan (Freddie Highmore, Finding Neverland) has lived his entire life. You know the drill from there. The other boys tease him, telling the “freak” he doesn’t have any parents. But Evan thinks otherwise because, since he can remember, music has been building deep inside him. He “believes in music the way some people believe in fairy tales” and thinks he will soon be reunited with his parents.
Flash back 11 years earlier and concert cellist Lyla Novacek (Russell, Waitress) and rock band lead singer Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Match Point) meet on a rooftop. They’re both trying to escape a party downstairs, and the rooftop is as good a choice as any because, after all, that's where romances blossom. Here’s some sample dialogue:
Louis: What’s your story, Lyla?
Lyla: I’m just me.
Within minutes they’ve fallen for each other, and the rocker has knocked up the cellist. Long story short, Lyla’s tyrant of a father forbids the young lovers from seeing each other. After pregnancy complications, said dad also convinces his daughter that her baby has died. Daddy really just gave the kid up for adoption, and as far as we can tell, Lyla asks no questions.
Flash forward to present day. Evan ditches the orphanage to look for his parents, unaware that they don’t live in New York. Louis is now a San Francisco businessman, and Lyla is a substitute teacher, but something — Louis finally figured out how do an internet search after a decade! — tells us that they’ll all cross paths sooner or later.
There are some cool scenes of Evan strumming away on his guitar, and it’s definitely entertaining when Sheridan simulates what it’s like in Evan’s head by using city sounds — bouncing basketballs, screeching cars, plastic bags blowing in the wind — to create a piece of music. We just don’t get nearly enough of this. Instead, screen time goes to, you guessed it, Robin Williams. He plays Wizard, a tough guy with earrings, big orange sideburns, a leather jacket and a cowboy hat who lives in the slums, preys on musically gifted homeless children and convinces Evan to change his name to August Rush so Child Services won’t s/files/storyimages/him back to the orphanage. Williams is so unbelievable as the obligatory villain that you’ll wish you were watching him in a sequel to RV.
It’s unfair to hurl all the blame on Williams, though, because August Rush has so many problems. Whether it's the predictable script, the unoriginal dialogue or the dreadful acting, this orchestra was doomed from the start.