One of the plagues of contemporary movies is the overuse of narration; it seems as though most pictures at least start with it, even if it leaves off after awhile. Occasionally, though, you get a film that’s basically read to you from beginning to end—a pretty good sign of lazy, undernourished writing. “Music Within” falls into that category. The narrator tells us his life story so persistently that the visuals are virtually superfluous; you could close your eyes and miss very little, especially given the poverty-row production values.
On second thought, though, you might want to bring earplugs as well, because while the inspirational “real-life” tale of the activist who was instrumental in the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 is certainly well-intentioned, it’s presented in so clumsy and pedestrian fashion that it would barely pass muster on the Lifetime Network. Ron Livingston stars as Richard Pimentel, who returns from Vietnam deafened by an explosion and becomes painfully aware of how society treats the disabled not only from his own experience of exclusion but through his friendship with angry fellow vet Mike Stoltz (Yul Vazquez), who lost a leg in the war, and especially Art Honeyman (Michael Sheen), a wheelchair-bound cerebral palsy victim (and irrepressibly sarcastic troublemaker) who becomes his best buddy. Overcoming his own handicap to become an activist of remarkably persuasive powers, Pimentel is eventually tabbed by the first President Bush to lead the charge for the passage of the ADA.
This is a heroic tale in many respects, but it’s handled here with the heavy hand of television-quality hagiography. The production is pathetically small-scaled (the Vietnam battle scenes are almost absurdly perfunctory), but perhaps to make up for that, the emotional emphasis is always writ very large. The most obvious proof lies in the performances of Sheen and Vasquez, which are oversized to such an extent that they come to seem almost unreal. From a technical perspective, at least, Sheen’s work is impressive, but as his character is written, Art is just too consciously and constantly manic to convince, and by sticking him into the forefront so intensely, director Steven Sawalich actually undermines the effect he has.
By contrast, the puffy-faced Livingston cuts such a bland figure as Pimentel that despite the character’s constant stream of monologue, which tells us what the fellow is thinking so that the actor doesn’t actually have to show it, he comes across as a cipher. It was also a mistake to have Livingston play the part from age eighteen on; he’s simply too old in his initial scenes to be remotely persuasive. And the earlier sequences, portraying Richard’s unhappy childhood (in which stilted Ridge Canipe plays him as a youth), are so arch—as a result of the anti-“Wonder Days” recitations and Rebecca De Mornay’s affected turn as his troubled mother—that they’re almost risible.
But there’s a veritable catalogue of misjudgments here. The verbally adept Richard’s initial rejection for a scholarship by demanding college speech professor Ben Padrow (Hector Elizondo) is badly staged, simply because Pimentel’s audition for the imperious fellow is played so poorly by Livingston, although he’s supposed to be terribly impressive. Richard’s on-again, off-again romance with Christine (Melissa George) is presented in a resolutely flat-footed, emotionally desiccated fashion. And surely it was a mistake to have Leslie Nielsen, of all people, play the fellow who provides Richard with an amazingly effective new hearing aid; he saunters onscreen wobbling and looking like he was wandering in from the set of another “Naked Gun” movie, and immediately evokes laughter—not what the sequence needs. Almost is bad is the casting of Clint Howard as a nasty, officious clerk in an early scene.
But all these problems, and the sadly undernourished production, which gives the attempt at period flavor a homely feel, are ultimately secondary to the major failing of “Music Within”—the decision to try to cover Pimentel’s life straight through, essentially reducing every part of it to the same desultory level without any appreciation for the need to select and emphasize. It’s not the story, but the fundamentally unintelligent way in which it’s been constructed and played, that’s the essential flaw here. Richard Pimentel’s experience, had it been skillfully molded to the screen, could have been a crowd-pleasing exercise in manipulative uplift; but in this telling it barely registers.