"August Rush" is the Hollywood version of one of those fawning "60 Minutes" segments about musical prodigies. For most of it, I could hear the congested awe of Morley Safer. TV newsmagazine puffery now has Dickensian aims.
An amazing 11-year-old orphan savant (Freddie Highmore) runs off to New York City from his boys' home and is seized upon by Wizard, a kind of rock 'n' roll-hobo Fagin, whom Robin Williams plays as an overmedicated Bono. Wizard gives the kid a lazy stage name (he sees a truck passing with the words "august" and "rush" on the side) and plops him in Washington Square Park, where August does his big trick: patting an amplified acoustic guitar like a set of bongos. But that's just a sample of what this genius can do.
August can hear symphonies in wheat fields and in urban noise. "I believe in music the way people believe in fairy tales," he says. "Sometimes the world tries to knock it out of you." While August roams the city, Terrence Howard, in the most thankless part he's ever had, plays the social worker searching for him. August doesn't really want to be found. He exists in a state of possessed rapture. The music has called him to New York. It's telling him his parents are still out there. And they are.
The boy is the product of two musicians - an American cellist (Keri Russell) and an Irish rocker (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) - who slept together on a rooftop sofa and never see much of each other again. We know these two are destined for each other because their names are alliterative - Lyla and Louis. But heaven has to wait. Her father (William Sadler) forbids her seeing Louis, who never finds out about her pregnancy but is despondent enough to quit his band. And Lyla is hit by a car. Of course! While she's laid up, Daddy, in a fit of vintage 1940s evil, gives away the baby, telling her it didn't survive the accident.
This would have been fine as juicy-trashy melodrama. But the director, Kirsten Sheridan, and the screenwriters, Nick Castle and James V. Hart, don't want the material to merely entertain us. They don't stop until they've colonized our hearts with their cheese. And I was trying to watch my cholesterol. The film wants to seem guided by cosmic whimsy. Hearing August's subliminal call, Lyla and Louis return to New York a decade later and resume their old lives (she's invited to fill her old Philharmonic slot; he rejoins that wimpy band). The promise of a family reunion is in the offing. But this isn't a matter of fate. It's just desperate moviemaking.
Sheridan helped write 2002's Irish-move-to-Harlem movie "In America," with her filmmaker father, Jim. "August Rush" chugs along with equal shamelessness, eagerly turning the dross of life into the gold of feel-good moviemaking, regardless of how naive or nuts the movie's alchemy seems. One night after August and Wizard get separated, the boy hops off the subway and wanders into a church where a handful of black people are signing the uplift blues ("Mama's gone"; "I'm feeling like a motherless child"; "Don't give up when the pressures come down").
The church is also a shelter, and its spunkiest resident (Jamia Simone Nash) - her name is Hope - shows August how to read music, only to come home and find her practice room covered with the pages of his new symphony. The movie gives us shots of August writing while black kids dribble basketballs and jump double-dutch. That montage is Sheridan's way of integrating this outsider into the fabric of a new world. But since we don't get more than a sample of, say, Hope's singing, that feels like a judgment: They play; he creates. Or his creation is inspired by their play.
Despite everything, Highmore is actually pretty exceptional. He makes such runny foulness as palatable as it can be. Still, there's something amiss about who gets ahead in this movie and how. When August comes along, Wizard demotes Arthur (Leon G. Thomas III), his virtually homeless dreadlocked singer-guitarist, from main attraction to sideshow and helpmeet. And when Hope runs out to tell the minister running the shelter (Mykelti Williamson) what August has done, he doesn't try to find Terrence Howard or a child therapist: he hand-delivers him to Juilliard! Black characters are here to help young August get ahead, eventually even poor Arthur.
If "August Rush" is a fairy tale, it's an excruciatingly, sometimes hilariously oblivious one. Does Sheridan know her movie could weirdly double as a parable for the history of race in music? She gives us a lot of befuddled reaction shots of Arthur, whose bad fortune is the under card to the bombastic triumph. He's probably wondering why he's not starring in a glorified "60 Minutes" segment of his own. That, my boy, is show biz.