Oscar Wilde once famously observed of Charles Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop,” “It would require a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.” Modern moviegoers may find themselves guiltily stifling giggles at the melodramatic “August Rush,” a would-be tearjerker about a gifted musical prodigy (Freddie Highmore) searching for the parents who abandoned him. While many films require a suspension of disbelief, “August Rush” asks viewers to terminate their disbelief without severance and have security escort it from the building.
British actor Highmore musters a credible Yank accent as Evan, a youngster tormented at a boys’ home in upstate New York by the other children, who don’t believe his claim that he can “hear” his long-lost parents. But Evan can hear lots of things — standing out in a windy field, he finds himself surrounded by music. Eventually, the wind tells him to run away to New York City to find his mother and father.
Flashbacks inform us that his parents are an aspiring rocker (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and an accomplished cellist (Keri Russell), who met one fateful night at a rooftop party, where they listened to a busker play “Moondance” in Washington Square Park. The next day, they are separated by the cellist’s mean father (William Sadler). The rocker is so distraught that he abandons music and goes into some kind of soulless finance career in San Francisco. The cellist gets hit by a car after an argument with her father; he forges her name on an adoption certificate and then lies to her and tells her that the child died.
Back in the present, wandering Evan gets taken in by Fagin-like former musician Wizard (Robin Williams), who has a stable of performing kids playing for change on the streets. (And in the first of a cavalcade of coincidences, he turns out to have been the musician playing “Moondance” that fateful night that Evan was conceived. But hold onto your hats, things get much more ridiculous from here.)
In quick procession, the following happens: the cellist learns the truth from her dying dad and dashes back to New York to find her son; the rocker has an unplanned reunion with his estranged brother and bandmate and sets out to find the cellist; Wizard gives Evan the stage name “August Rush,” and Evan keeps using it to evade the authorities (and the cellist, thus keeping the plot afloat).
Does this lead to a concert in Central Park where the New York Philharmonic plays a composition by Evan (who, by this point, is auditing classes at Julliard)? Does the cellist just happen to be a performer at that concert? Does the rocker happen to hear the music while driving across town? Oh, yes. And there are so many more levels of coincidences and misunderstandings and near-misses that even Dickens himself would have taken a step back and said, “Hmm. Too much.”
It’s a pity that, for a film that’s so focused on music, director Kirsten Sheridan hired the hacky Mark Mancina (“Training Day,” “Twister”) to compose the score. But kudos to sound editor Jeff Rosen and his department for portraying the “music” Evan hears in pastoral fields and urban traffic jams. This shtick was done better in “Thirty-Three Short Films about Glenn Gould,” but this movie at least takes a noble stab at it.