August Rush Closes the Denver Film Festival on a Hackneyed Note

Closing night didn't shut the door on the 30th annual Starz Denver Film Festival. Other selections began unspooling around the same time or after the start of this bash at other participating theaters, and a full slate of flicks was available for viewing the following day. As such, the November 17 event seemed more symbolic than literal -- a salute of the festival as a whole thrown in a beautiful location (the Ellie Caulkins Opera House) before an audience dressed to the nines, tens and elevens. Too bad this year's selection, August Rush, which debuts at theaters nationwide on November 21, wasn't truly a cause for celebration.

The evening kicked off with brief introductory remarks by Denver Film Society executive director Scott Rowitz and another screening of a sponsor-pleasing mini-film saluting fest founder Ron Henderson, who is stepping down this year as the bash's artistic director. Then, after Henderson acknowledged the crowd, incoming artistic director Brit Withey and director of festivals Britta Erickson took to the stage to fete three of this year's major award winners: Knee Deep, the best documentary recipient (director Michael Chandler was present and accepted with obvious appreciation); The Owl and the Sparrow, which won the emerging filmmaker nod for director Stephane Gauger (a no-show); and Persepolis, an acclaimed animated look at life in Iran (representatives of this flick were absent, too).

Moments later, Withey and Erickson handed over the podium to the big get of the 2007 fest: Keri Russell, the former Highlands Rancher who co-stars in August Rush. Her appearance had been hyped in every local media outlet imaginable, but it turned out to be a letdown. She clearly hadn't prepared any comments, and as a result, she spoke for only about thirty seconds, pointing out that Denver is "still" one of her favorite cities, expressing pride in the film, and suggesting that Fall was the perfect time of year for it to open. And off she went, never to return: Unlike director Jason Reitman, whose wonderful flick Juno was at the center of the fest's Big Night presentation, she didn't participate in a post-movie Q&A. Guess she wanted to get on C470 before the Saturday night traffic got too heavy.

Weightiness wasn't a problem for August Rush. The film is as light as helium, yet it never takes off. The plot revolves around a boy raised in an orphanage (Freddie Highmore) who discovers his extraordinary musical gifts while searching for the musician parents (Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who don't know he exists. The narrative isn't meant to be taken literally, and that's a good thing, since it's built upon a tower of coincidence and contrivance. For instance, the audience is asked to believe that Highmore has never touched a musical instrument in his life before hitting the highway (did his caretakers keep him in solitary confinement?), but is able to hammer away like Stanley Jordan within seconds of slapping his first guitar string. Compared to this kid, Mozart was a dunderhead.

Unfortunately, young director Kirsten Sheridan, who was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar in 2002 for penning In America with her sister, Naomi Sheridan, and her father, Jim Sheridan, fails to create the magical atmosphere that would make such whimsy work dramatically. Visually, her palette juxtaposes ethereal images of waving hands and open skies with messy, hand-held sequences meant to convey the confusion and dangers of the big city and repeated closeups of her main actors. There are nearly as many shots of giant faces and eyes as in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but the effect is negligible. Rather than boring into her subjects, Sheridan remains on the surface, truncating scenes or knitting them together with voiceover and melodic transitions borrowed from music videos -- a tack that makes the tale seem like a montage in search of a movie.

Granted, Sheridan has fine camera subjects: Russell is lovely, Rhys Meyers has an enigmatic handsomeness, Terrence Howard, in an expanded cameo as a social worker, exudes goodheartedness, and Highmore is the most transparent of child actors, able to convey a world of buried confusion and pain with the simplest of expressions. Instead of allowing Highmore to use all his tools, though, Sheridan encourages him to saunter through the movie with a beatific, semi-dazed look, as if he's entranced by a radio station to which only he is tuned. He's less an actor in August Rush than a teenager experiencing his first acid trip. But at least he's easier to take than Robin Williams, cast as a Dickensian character called the Wizard who uses an army of child performers to fill his hat. Once upon a time, Williams was a hilarious performer also capable of subtlety and sensitivity. Now, he's the least nuanced of performers, and he attacks this awful part with a crassness more appropriate to an old episode of Hollywood Squares than to a film with a gentle spirit. Attention Razzy voters: This performance is for you.

The conclusion of the film should inspire satisfied tears, yet it largely left the opera-house throng dry-eyed and unmoved. The festival should have ended on a high note, not a shrug. -- Michael Roberts