Kirsten Sheridan’s August Rush is a lot of things, but mostly it’s an honorable failure—maybe even a noble one. Certainly, it’s an ambitious one. But it is a failure. Oh, there are good aspects to the film—even some very fine moments—and there are intimations of the great film it might have been. To have been a great film, however, it would have taken a genius of a filmmaker—something that Kirsten Sheridan just isn’t.
The idea of illustrating the connective power of music isn’t especially new. As far as movies are concerned, it at least dates back to 1932 and Rouben Mamoulian’s Maurice Chevalier-Jeanette MacDonald musical Love Me Tonight. Based on a fairy tale about a scarf that finds its way to a prince, who makes the somewhat astounding leap that he will marry whomever the scarf belonged to, Mamoulian changed the connecting device from the scarf to a song (Rodgers and Hart’s “Isn’t It Romantic?”). Considering the fact that Sheridan has a scene where the rhythms of New York come together to form the kernel of a symphonic vision in her hero’s head and Mamoulian’s film opens with the building rhythms of the city of Paris awakening, it’s pretty darn unlikely that Sheridan was unaware of the original.
That Sheridan and screenwriters Nick Castle, James V. Hart and Paul Castro chose to align this concept with a very melodramatic variant on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist needn’t have been the kiss of death, but it set up its own set of problems. These start with the improbable plot device of having the overprotective father (William Sadler) of Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell) forging his daughter’s signature on an adoption release and telling her that the baby is dead. They’re compounded by a screenplay that can’t decide exactly what the relationship is between the movie’s Oliver Twist character, August Rush (Freddie Highmore), and its Artful Dodger character, Arthur (Leon G. Thomas III), and that has no clear vision at all about whether the Fagin character, Maxwell “Wizard” Wallace (Robin Williams), is a bad guy, a good-bad guy or simply misdirected.
The premise that the great love between Lyla and a struggling Irish rocker, Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), could survive the passage of 11 years is a bit of a stretch—especially since it’s based strictly on one night of PG-rated passion resulting in the conception of August. It might have worked if there was even a hint of chemistry between Russell and Rhys Meyers, but there isn’t. The real killer, however, lies in the double-barreled disaster of Rhys Meyers’ lack of charisma and the quality of his songs. Mr. Rhys Meyers has two basic expressions: dour and dour with dyspepsia. The dismal songs he performs perfectly match his persona, but that’s not in anybody’s best interest. Even granting that the composition by musical prodigy August—the work that will allow him to find his parents—is merely a serviceable work, it at least passes muster in context, which the rock songs do not.
Individual sequences—usually involving August’s relation to music—are very fine, but they can’t hold the movie together. The specter of what the movie might have been comes to the forefront when Sheridan briefly looks like she’s going to interconnect the rock music, August’s composition and Lyla performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Unfortunately, Sheridan must have realized she couldn’t pull it off, and stops short of trying what could have been an amazing fusion of music, image and theme. Too bad, because such a scene could have saved the film from being the likable but unpersuasive fairy tale it is. Rated PG for some thematic elements, mild violence and language.