Shine (Scott Hicks)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

Shine, which recently was voted the best film of 1996 by the National Board of Review, is shaping up to be one of the year's crossover arthouse hits -- one of those rare "small" movies that manages to attract a significant portion of the audience that usually leaves its collective home only to see big-budget Hollywood fare. When this happens, it's usually either because the film in question is outstanding in a crowd-pleasing way, or because it's fraudulent and patronizing in the manner of so many of Hollywood's most successful pictures; Shine, sadly, is a textbook example of the latter, an independent film (made in Australia, and distributed by Fine Line Features) that embodies the worst qualities of self-important, schmaltzy studio dramas. (Naturally, AMPAS is gonna eat it up -- these are the folks who loved Gandhi, remember.) The true story of a gifted musical prodigy who gradually goes nuts (in part because of his relationship with his stern, forbidding father, played beautifully by Armin Mueller-Stahl) and then not-so-gradually sorta recovers (in part because of his relationship with a goofy astrologist, played appallingly by Lynn Redgrave -- give me Vanessa any day), Shine is both far too overwrought and far too cutesy. The overwrought part is courtesy of director Scott Hicks, who chose to shoot this potentially affecting material in a slightly more restrained version of the hyperactive, garish style familiar from more outrageous Aussie films like Strictly Ballroom and Muriel's Wedding. The cutesy part is courtesy of actor Geoffrey Rush, who portrays the prodigy in question, David Helfgott, as an adult, and who is inexplicably winning critics' Best Actor awards for the role; even if Rush's manic, mechanical, award-hungry portrayal of Helfgott is 100% accurate, it's still nauseating to behold -- the kind of stunt that impresses people who don't know much about acting, but which is far easier to pull off than the kind of understated work that, say, Chris Cooper does in Lone Star. The only reason to see Shine, apart from the always watchable Mueller-Stahl, is Noah Taylor, who plays Helfgott as a teenager, and whose subtle, carefully shaded performance is far more impressive and resonant than Rush's grandstanding. But Taylor doesn't get to spit out his dialogue at 200 mph, or bounce around naked on a trampoline with headphones blasting music in his ears, so why should we care about him? Sappy and stupid, this is the year's most overrated film.