Indie film and Miramax have never been less synonymous than in Finding Neverland
(minor spoilers in both reviews, subject to how much you know of the biographies of J.M. Barrie and Ray Charles)

Caught an advanced screening of Miramax’s latest Oscar-bait last night, Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet with Dustin Hoffman as Hook (just kidding, Hoffman is a crusty-but-benign producer). Depp plays J.M. Barrie, best known as the author of Peter Pan. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that the movie promises to warm the cockles of your heart with its paean to the transformative imagination of children and the artist who was a child at heart.

As resistant as I was to it, I have to admit that it won me over. It took until late in the movie, during the opening night of Peter Pan, but it got to me. I even finally bought that Depp and Winslet remained ‘just friends.’ I wouldn’t say the movie fails to explore the darker side since it does raise the possibility that the reason Barrie has befriended the Davies’ is that he’s some sort of child molester. But it doesn’t go very deep into that. Clearly Depp is not getting any from his wife, played by the icy Radha Mitchell. So where does he get his jollies? From a hyperactive imagination, I suppose.

Writers are gonna eat this movie up, like I did. But they are only a small percentage of Academy voters. Actors are in the majority. So I turn now to another film that is getting Oscar heat, especially for Jamie Foxx’s performance.

That’s right, Ray (wisely retitled from the clumsy Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Story). Foxx stole the show from Cruise in Collateral and here he’s the entire show. His mimicry of the real Charles is uncanny, but he did have months to observe and study him before he died. It’s a good performance, not a great one. But it definitely solidifies his A-list status.

As for the movie, it is bad acting and writing (James L. White from a story by him and director Taylor Hackford) that brings it down. Charles’ life is tailor (Taylor?) made for a biopic: traumatic childhood; struggle to overcome adversity; a built-in amazing sound-track; and the opportunity for a herion-withdrawl montage that can bring it all together. Unfortunately, the adversity is played too maudlin in the end, the final heroin-withdrawl flashback confrontation with Charles’ mother being patently ridiculous. All of the flashbacks are ridiculous though, because the kids playing young Ray and his brother aren’t very convincing, nor is Sharon Warren given very many actable lines. These scenes read like the writer’s first first draft that he shouldn’t ever show to anyone lest they think him a hack (Hackford?).

Given the great material, the movie could’ve been much better. I only sigh for what could’ve been, which you are reminded of every time you hear Charles’ music in the film. True greatness makes a solid effort seem trivial in the juxtaposition. The easy Freudian conflict of Ray having to deal with his younger brother’s drowning death (one of the last things he saw before going blind and the only flashback scene that has an effective visceral impact) before he can kick heroin is something the film-makers don’t even seem to believe in, having Ray’s heroin use never interfere with his life except that his wife doesn’t approve of it, and having him easily quit cold turkey after a short montage. Some high drama.

Better drama comes out of Ray’s womanizing subplot, and the actresses who play against him here are up to the task (Kerry Washington and Regina King most notably). The obligatory scenes of Ray overcoming rascism, discrimination against the sight-impaired, and record producers are fun and done with a pizazz that does more to capture the fun side of Charles’ music than the flashbacks capture to the heart-breaking side. Would he have been a great musician if he hadn’t faced the adversities he did, if he hadn’t gone blind because his family couldn’t afford the necessary medicine? In the end, the movie leaves us with an immoral lesson: horrible rascism and poverty made Ray. He is a product of his circumstances. The real truth is Ray Charles transcended his circumstances, succeeded in spite of them. This formulaic reduction of his life amounts to a formulaic reduction of the meaning of it.

I don’t think it is intentional, but in the long view the filmmakers have failed to give him the tribute he deserved. Still, in fifty years the material of Ray’s life and music might inspire a better biopic. We can hope. Until then, Ray will do fine. The music is his true legacy.