There are plenty of flaky movies out there this year—“Southland Tales” and “I’m Not There” probably take the cake—but one has to reserve a special place for this attempt at a feel-good flick about the healing power of music from writer Nick Castle and director Kirsten Stewart. “August Rush” is so gloriously, astonishingly nutty that it almost qualifies as an instant camp classic on the order of “Can’t Stop the Music,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or “Xanadu.”
But “almost” is the operative word. Though visually it swoons and zooms with absurd pointlessness (courtesy of John Mathieson’s extravagantly busy cinematography), in storytelling terms it never ascends the heights of absolute lunacy a real masterpiece of badness must attain—despite the hilariously maladroit insertion of an “Oliver Twist”-inspired subplot featuring, heaven help us, none other than Robin Williams masticating the New York scenery as a modern-day Fagin. He nearly takes “August Rush” into the stratospheric heights of awe-dropping idiocy, but once again it doesn’t quite get there.
The little hero of the picture is 11-year old Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore), a supposed orphan in a New York children’s home with a preternatural feel for the harmony that exists in all the world around us. (He’s first shown “conducting” the wind in a convenient wheat field.) His genius is explained by the fact that he’s actually the offspring of cello prodigy Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell) as a result of a one-night fling she had with Irish rocker Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys Meyers); but the kid was spirited away from her by her career-minded father (William Sadler), who informed her falsely that the child had died on delivery while forging her name to papers giving the infant away. Get all that?
Anyhow, little Evan, certain that his parents are alive, runs away to NYC, where—through the agency of tyke street musician Arthur (Leon G. Thomas III, working way too hard to be lovable as the Artful Dodger stand-in)—he’s taken in by Wizard (Williams), a guy with a stable of homeless kids who ply their musical trade for donations from the passing public. It turns out that Evan’s a natural—a brilliant guitarist despite never having had a lesson—whom Wizard intends to exploit to make it big under the pseudonym of August Rush. Through a series of most unlikely circumstances, August winds up as a scholarship student at Juilliard, where the wunderkind composes a symphony so brilliant that the school wants him to conduct it at a gala Central Park concert, though Wizard has other plans.
Wouldn’t you know it, also scheduled to perform at that concert is none other than Lyla, a distinguished Juilliard alumna returning to the stage after years away from her instrument? She’s also learned that her son is alive, and is searching for him with the help of kindly child welfare agent Richard Jeffries (Terrence Howard). And Louis, who left his family band ago, just happens to have taken up singing again and is looking for the girl he’s always loved. Do you suppose they might all get together?
In telling this crackpot story Sheridan tries, with Mathieson’s strenuous help (most notably in the woozily shot and edited montages that are plopped periodically into the mix—they contain more flocks of soaring birds than early John Woo), for a tone of magical realism, but this is no “Billy Elliot”—there’s virtually no realism and absolutely no magic. And the musical elements (courtesy, one supposes, of Mark Mancina and Hans Zimmer, though there are also several “music supervisors”) are terrible—elevator-quality New Agey junk posing a serious compositions (little August’s symphony, of which we hear a good deal at the end, is so bad it might have been composed by Mr. Holland). The Juilliard scenes, and the concert at the end, are positively ridiculous.
Add to the list of embarrassments the performances. Howard is wasted in a bland role, and both Russell and Rhys Meyers seem to drip blissful insincerity. As for Highmore, he’s called upon to spend far too much time staring up wide-eyed toward the camera like a human version of a puppy you’re supposed to ooh and ah over. But it’s Williams who goes truly bonkers with a turn that suggests what Mork might have been like had he gone completely to seed and developed a nasty streak. It almost makes one long for one of his bad “understated” performances.
One can just feel the desire of Sheridan to convey something about the enchantment of music and the power of love in “August Rush.” Unfortunately, the movie crosses the line from drippy earnestness to sappy absurdity, and the visual flamboyance only adds to the pretentious goofiness of it all.