The wonderful choristers of the American Boychoir School (is "boychoir" even a word?) in Princeton, New Jersey, are the heart and soul of this production. But all the star power at the top of the bill cannot save a sentimental paint-by-numbers film.
That institution, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, would have made a better documentary subject, but this schematic drama of a lost boy finding himself never flies.
You can almost hear the pieces slot into place in the screenplay by Ben Ripley, whose credits, which include films in the Source Code and Species franchises, do not bespeak the subtlety called for here.
Wareing plays Stet, a troubled Texan teenager with an angel's voice, whose alcoholic solo mother dies. The father he never knew materialises and tries to get rid of his past the only way he knows how: by pulling out his chequebook and buying his boy's way into the exclusive, but cash-strapped, school.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
The choir is led by the perfectionist martinet Carvelle (Hoffman) and a deputy Drake (a hideously miscast Izzard), whose presence seems to be something of a running gag: "It must be a special kind of torture waiting for someone to retire," the school's harried headmistress-cum-business manager remarks. It's an unnecessary touch in a film full of them, saddled with big speeches like "You're giving them your voice, and that's as spiritual as it gets."
Hoffman's performance, which hints at late-career sadness, has touches of the old greatness. Izzard is reduced to whining and counting the beat like someone who has studied conducting for 20 minutes.
The story arc is utterly predictable and its elements seem to have been assembled from a flat pack: the outsider, teased and bullied, wants to squander his talent and fights his mentor; the previous top dog seeks to sabotage his competitor; and you'll never guess what that father does in the final scene.
The boys' treble and alto singing is a treat, though: Tallis, Faure, Britten, Mendelssohn. Never mind that their Messiah begins and ends with a very short Hallelujah chorus and the conductor, like a fairground barker, introduces the choir over the orchestra's playing - the film works best when you close your eyes anyway.
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Eddie Izzard, Debra Winger, Josh Lucas, Kevin McHale, Garrett Wareing, Joe West
Director: Francois Girard
Running time: 103 mins
Rating: PG (violence, offensive language)
Verdict: Schematic, sentimental drama, with beautiful singing.