Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/01/05 15:59:47

"As sweet and as solid as a Ray Charles performance itself."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The biggest concern about “Ray” is that while Jaime Foxx would do an exceptional impersonation of Ray Charles, he would, as sadly often happens in biographies of highly recognizable celebrities, not offer much of an actual performance beyond that. Fortunately, this concern is wholly unfounded, as Foxx disappears so effortlessly into his recreation of the jazz great that his performance here never becomes one of mere mimicry. Foxx plays it for keeps, and he turns out an acting job far beyond expectations; if his turn in “Collateral” sold him as a truly great actor, his turn in “Ray” suggests that he was only getting warmed up.

Of course, Foxx’s performance has already been guaranteed Oscar status. Discussing it further would by now only be redundant - just know, if you for whatever reason do not already, that Foxx is nothing short of masterful. So the question then is, how’s the rest of the film? Well, it has its limitations, and yet the limitations do not matter. Despite its being nothing more than a straightforward biopic, with nothing fancy or overreaching, “Ray” is still quite marvelous. It may be Hollywood fluff, but it’s enormously entertaining Hollywood fluff.

The film is directed by Taylor Hackford, who has long made Hollywood fluff yet never fully achieved anything spectacular - his best known films include “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “White Nights,” and “The Devil’s Advocate,” while his closest brush with greatness came at the helm of the concert documentary “Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll.” Hackford has made a career of being dependable but not memorable. Here, however, he aims to change that. Demanding sharp turns from every one of his cast members (and, wisely, filling his cast with character actors who are recognizable but not distractingly so, allowing a feel of familiarity without the too-common sense of fakiness), pushing to faithfully recreate the look and feel of every era of Charles’ life, finding just the right mix of intimacy and grandness, Hackford has finally managed to craft a picture worth excitement.

The sizzling cast and finely tuned direction help cover for the screenplay (from Hackford and newcomer James L. White), which carries a bit of ordinariness to it. We follow Charles’ rise to fame intercut with flashbacks of his troubled childhood, and we realize that the energy crackling on the screen comes little from the written word. The script is standard biopic fare, nothing truly memorable, and yet when put in the hands of Foxx and his costars - not to mention the spot-on editing of Paul Hirsch, who keeps everything jumping at a rate bouncy enough for us to ignore the film’s two-and-a-half hour running time - things really start to pick up. The script merely states the facts. It’s everyone else who brings it to glorious life.

In fact, even with an average screenplay, the film has only two true distractions. First, the flashbacks are too uneven; the children playing young Ray and his brother stumble through their lines (no fault of theirs, considering their age), and it’s up to the magnificent Sharon Warren (in her film debut), as Ray’s mother, to pick up the slack (which she does effortlessly). Second, the film’s ending is as clunky as there’s ever been for a biopic. Here we are, chugging along through Charles’ stint in rehab, and then, well, boom. A few titles cards and a tacked-on epilogue jump in to wrap up the next thirty-plus years of Charles’ life. It comes out of nowhere, as if the filmmakers just figured there wasn’t much else to tell.

But these are minor quibbles when compared to the sheer enjoyment there is to be had from this film. We get to watch a master performer play a master performer, all the while some of the best music to ever hit human ears gets to come along for the ride. “Ray” may be light and Hollywoodish, but it is so in such a good way. This is a great time at the movies, an unforgettable story about a true legend.

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