Friday, October 29, 1999

Unchanged melody

Movie: Music of the Heart

Posted on Fri, Oct 29, 1999 at 4:00 AM

***
Our Rating: 3.00

Meryl Streep is the new scream queen? Freddy's back, and he utilizes 50 violins to hack up his victims? Wes Craven, director of the "Scream" trilogy and creator of "A Nightmare on Elm Street," successfully escapes from the horror-movie ghetto?

The answers: No, no and yes, respectively. Craven, the brand-name talent responsible for redesigning the look of terror films over the last few decades, has indeed teamed with Streep, America's favorite Oscar-winning actress over the age of 40.

The unlikely alliance has yielded an inspirational, pleasantly diverting but markedly familiar family movie, one that follows the trials and tribulations of Roberta Guaspari (Streep), a resourceful teacher who's determined to win over her East Harlem students with the discipline and beauty of classical music. It's a cross between "Stand and Deliver" and "Mr. Holland's Opus" that stops just shy of turning into a sentimental celluloid tract on the glories of arts education.

Recently separated from her military-officer husband, Roberta tries her luck with the inner-city job at the suggestion of laid-back pal Brian Sinclair (Aidan Quinn), a writer and old school friend who finds his way to her bed and just as casually leaves the next morning for a research trip to Texas.

Roberta's heart is in her work anyway, so she plunges ahead, bringing a bag of instruments to school and occasionally crossing bows with Dennis (Josh Pais), a curmudgeonly music-department head who figures that Do-Re-Mi is more than enough strain for his kids' brains.

With the exception of the supportive Isabel (Gloria Estefan), Roberta's fellow teachers join the chorus of naysayers, and the occasional parent throws suspicion on her motives. "My son's got more important things to do than learn dead white men's music," one mother protests. If that outburst is representative of the reactions the actual Roberta engendered (the film is based on a real-life teacher's experiences), it nevertheless comes across on the screen as heavy-handed and contrived.

Rote, if reality-based, drama typifies much of the rest of the film. On the domestic front, Roberta is frustrated by the emotional difficulties of her sons (Charlie Hofheimer and Kieran Culkin), her new boyfriend's apparent unwillingness to commit to a long-term relationship and even a house-renovation project that's stymied by shoddy work. The professional portion of her life remains in similar turmoil, with her music program veering from triumphant acclaim to threatened cancellation over the course of a tumultuous 10 years. Based on a true story, "Music of the Heart" sings a song that couldn't be more suited to the movies.

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