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Saturday, November 24, 2007

August Rush

This has been the week for fairy tales at the Essex Cinemas. Disney gave us Enchanted and Warner Brothers gave us Disenchanted. Well, they prefer to call it August Rush but it really is the grimier and grimmer flip side of what happens when an innocent soul winds up in big ol’ New York alone. I know all about that. Yes, Punkins, there was a time when even I was innocent. Granted, New York was still called New Amsterdam, but I actually did have a childhood and I remember what it was like to grow up without a mother in the Big City.

That’s half the weepie premise of August Rush, or almost half. Little August, actually Evan (played perfectly by today’s most effective child actor, Freddie Highmore of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland fame) is given up at birth and raised for his eleven-and-a-half-years at an orphanage in upstate New York, where he hangs onto two things ~ first, he has an innate ability to hear and love music in just about everything, from the hum of power lines to the wind whistling through the grass to the sweeping of a broom, and second, he harbors a deep-seated belief that his parents are still alive and out there in the world somewhere looking for him, and that they are all still bonded together by the music he hears.

What Evan doesn’t know is that he comes by his musical talents naturally and there just may be something to his hypothesis. Unfortunately, the point isn’t clearly told because director Kirsten Sheridan (her last gig was 2001’s Disco Pigs) takes a haphazard approach in bouncing back and forth amongst three separate stories and switches from past to present as she pulls the trio, parents and child, along towards an inevitable conclusion without a linear storyline that seems to make sense (at first), though it does allow the audience to learn a lot about Evan long before he knows it himself.

Both of his parents are musicians. His mother, Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell; Waitress) was a classical cellist with a budding symphonic career when she met his father, Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys Meyers; tv’s “The Tudors”), a rock musician, at a party one night. A little love at first sight, followed by a lot of stinky finger (as my cousin Raul so tastefully refers to the act of love) and morning comes almost as quickly as Louis, forcing the lovers to part after a single night of passion on the rooftop where they met.

In typical Romeo and Juliet fashion, Lyla’s father (William Sadler; The Mist) refuses to entertain any idea of his talented daughter becoming involved with anybody romantically and so he strong-arms her off on a concert tour without so much as a chance for her to say “Keep in touch” to her new-found loverboy.

Obviously, she ends up preggers, but Lyla hardly seems the type to farm her baby boy off to an orphanage. Dad must have watched a lot of afternoon tv while he cooled his heels on the concert trail because he wastes no time pulling the old “Your baby died at birth” routine and then sent the newborn off to the orphan home, so Lyla would never know she even had a son out in the world someplace. Except, of course, she has always had a funny feeling about that somehow and it has lasted for nearly eleven-and-a-half-years…

Meanwhile, one night with Lyla was apparently all it took for Louis to give up a life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll ~ damn, she must be good! ~ we find him after almost eleven-and-a-half-years looking like a stockbroker because, apparently, he is one, and living in San Francisco of all places, which is odd since he and his brothers who made up the band are all Irish. Now comes the real fairy tale part ~ we are supposed to believe that in all these years Louis has remained celibate (well at least in his heart) and has swooned constantly for his long-lost love, Lyla, even though he’s never attempted to contact her though she has made quite a name for herself in the classical music world.

Their backstory caught up, the centerpiece of the film then focuses on Evan’s not-so-wonderful adventures in New York City, where he has run away to in search of his missing parents. It’s there that he falls in with the exploitive Wizard (Robin Williams; Man of the Year), a creepy Is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-pedophile? type who basically pimps a couple dozen homeless runaway kids by turning them into street corner performers and then taking all of their earnings in exchange for food and shelter in a dilapidated and abandoned theater. Williams has played villains before, but there is something really troubling about his character in this one. Think of him as the “wicked witch” of the fairy tale, but in Enchanted you tend not to fret that the evil queen might be a potential psychopath, even though she obviously is one. Here, Williams’ Wizard is hard to read. He can go from thoughtful to threatening in less than a heartbeat. It’s his idea to change Evan’s name to August Rush. He tells the boy it sounds like the name of a superstar, but, in truth, it also adds a layer of protection between Wizard and anybody looking for a missing musical prodigy named Evan. Of course, tearing down flyers with the kid’s picture on them posted all over the neighborhood also helps a lot.
Needless to say, as in all fairy tales, we are expected to suspend our disbelief, but this requires
almost too much to swallow in what is being peddled as a “drama” instead of a “fairy tale.” Blame it on marketing; I always do, because August Rush is a sweet-hearted little movie that may even bring a tear to your eye by the end (in a good way). It is bound to be savaged by the mainstream critics because of its poor structure (all the bouncing around ~ I wish I had the frequent flyer mileage!) and its real stretch of credibility in getting this family reunited by the end.
There’s certainly a lot more to the story than what I’ve revealed here, so don’t fret if you feel I’ve given away too much of the plot. Trust me, this is just a taste, and there’s the music to enjoy in addition to the story itself. Also look for
Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard (The Brave One) in what is essentially a throwaway role as the social worker who is the link between Evan, Lyla, Wizard, and the orphanage. Why Howard, who’s career seems to be lightening hot right now, would choose to take such a minor role is a mystery, but he really classes up the Department of Social Services. They should be so lucky to have him in real life. Yum.

August Rush isn’t going to be for everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed it despite its obvious flaws. The adult characters are likeable (well, except for Wizard) and Freddie Highmore’s smile is bright enough to light up a night sky and warm the coldest heart, which I’ve been accused of having, so the movie must be doing something right.

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