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August Rush is everything cynics might have expected Enchanted to be—cloying, insipid, straining with fake wonder—but its chief offense is taking itself too seriously. Even its outline is precious: A rock star and a cellist produce a prodigy after a devil-may-care night of making sweet music (on the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper, no less). The cellist’s daddy forces her to give up the child, but mother and son can “hear” each as they live separate lives. A reunion is inevitable.
It doesn’t matter if you love music or inspirational stories or Robin Williams (anyone?)—this is enough to make your teeth ache, and neither director Kirsten Sheridan (2000’s Disco Pigs) nor scripters Nick Castle and James V. Hart fill in the blanks in a manner sufficient enough to cut the sugar. The story is one coincidence after another, often “magical” and more often unbelievable. After Lyla (Keri Russell) and Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) meet at a party and spend that blissful night together, her father (William Sadler) forbids her to see him the next day as planned. Later, Lyla discovers she’s pregnant, but when an argument with Dad ends with her running into traffic and being hit by a car, he takes advantage of her coma and an emergency delivery to have the baby adopted (nice!). Lyla believes she lost the child.
Eleven years later, Lyla’s a schoolteacher, and her son (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Freddie Highmore) runs away from his orphanage, “following the music” to New York, air-conducting all the sounds he hears along the way. He’s drawn to a child busker who brings him to his Dickensian home: an abandoned theater in which “Wizard” (an abrasive Williams, clearly imitating Bono) pimps out a horde of musical urchins. Now, this kid has never touched an instrument, but as soon as he finds his way to a guitar, he’s a mini Django Reinhardt. Wizard dubs him August Rush and assigns him his best corner. Soon, August discovers that he can compose, too—cutely, he wanders into a Baptist church, where a tiny choir girl with a giant voice teaches him to read music in about five seconds—and before you can say “yeah, right!” August is studying at Juilliard and the New York Philharmonic plans to perform one of his symphonies.
There are more fortuities that boggle the mind—Manhattan may as well be a three-block neighborhood the way these characters keep running into one another. But the script isn’t the film’s only weakness. The cast, assets in their other work, share the blame, too. One can’t imagine an actress with a more appropriately ethereal look to play a cellist than Keri Russell, and her leading turn in this year’s Waitress proved the depth she’s capable of. As Lyla, Russell’s far-off stare does at times make her look the part of a dreamer; more often, though, she looks kinda nuts. Rhys Meyers’ somewhat sinister blankness also may be suited to a rock-god role, but his Louis isn’t exactly the torch-inspiring fall-into-his-arms type. And poor Highmore—he does his best to express the joy August gets from cultivating his gift. But a single giddy, open-mouthed expression can only carry a scamp so far before it makes you want to cram his sense of wonder down his throat, kind of like this movie does to its audience.