August Rush is the tale of musically gifted Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore) and his journey to try and find the parents everyone else believes to be dead. Along the way he meets sinister Fagan-like miser Wizard (Robin Williams) who re-christens Evan ‘August Rush’ and tries to manipulate his musical talents for his own gains.
If this premise immediately fills your heart with sadness at the prospect of a schmaltzy tale of redemption, longing and eventually, happy reconciliation then stop reading now because things really don’t get any better. The entire ‘hook’ of the film is that Highmore’s character can hear music in everything; a police officer’s whistle, a bird’s call, rattling dustbin lids, and then turn this into his own brand of musical extravagance. What this translates as is that every fifteen minutes or so the films feels the need to stop all plot development so that Highmore can take centre stage performing an apparently improvised piece which we are never quite sure whether the rest of the cast hears or not.
After an overlong and drawn out opening in which we are treated to the back story of August’s parent’s (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Kerri Russell) union, our boy wonder eventually falls into the clutches of a decidedly evil Robin Williams, drawing here on the type of performance which served him so well in One Hour Photo and Insomnia. It’s a rare treat to see an actor so famed for one particular genre turn himself round so well but over the last few years Williams has honed the persona of creepy villain down to a fine art and here he is one of the only aspects that impresses, creating a pantomime villain for a pantomime performance.
One of Rush’s most overt problems (and believe me, there are many) is that it can’t quite pierce the realms of believability to a satisfactory degree. For all his Irish charm and Gaelic good looks Meyers doesn’t convince as a rock star turned business man, turned back to rock star. Similarly Kerri Russell doesn’t portray the type (or age for that matter) of character to still be ruled over by an overbearing father. In more simplistic turns when August does get down to jamming on a guitar we are treated to close up shots of Highmore’s face followed by close up shots of a pair of hands which must belong to someone closer to fifty than Highmore’s early years. It’s a small point but provides a concurrent metaphor for how the film treats its audience.
The decision to treat us like fools would be forgivable had director Kirsten Sheridan chosen to stick with it throughout but in a cliché-laden conclusion she abandons it completely deciding we have seen enough to work the rest out for ourselves and ending on a note where none of the characters actually really know anything for certain. It is one of those rare horrific moments when you realise the credits are about to role at possibly the most inconvenient moment possible.
Feel-good films in general don’t tend to inspire good film making and ultimately August Rush is no exception and provides a good example to the rule. It is by a long way too happy for its own good and even in evoking the Oliver Twist like threat of the Big City it can’t create a middle period filled with anything but smiles. This sort of material needs to be treated tastefully and with a good deal of reproach and retreat. Instead, Sheridan lays it on so thick you can physically hear it adding to the woefully poor soundtrack. Robin Williams’ mid-life career switch provides momentary distraction and despite problems with the script, Highmore, Russell and Meyers have enough talent to keep us at least awake. Other than this however, there is very little to recommend from a musical fable which eventually only plays bum notes.