Foxx shines but 'Ray' sadly hits all the wrong notes

by John Kim | 11/1/04 6:00am

The pre-release buzz surrounding Jamie Foxx's performance in "Ray" was deafening, and indeed, the "In Living Color" star more than lives up to the hype. Foxx is an absolute shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, and it should surprise no one if he wins the whole thing come February. I had remained unconvinced of Foxx's talents even after his laudable turn in "Collateral" this summer, but I can no longer justify such skepticism. The man can act, pure and simple, and if he never does anything worthwhile ever again, he can at least be proud of his accomplishment here.

There is an inherent problem with portraying a man like Ray Charles; the necessary physical transformation is so overt that one risks turning him into a caricature. Strike a wrong note, and you have something akin to Horatio Sanz doing his Elton John impersonation on SNL.

In fact, Foxx's physical commitment to the role is extraordinary, as he completely becomes Charles from the stutter in his step to the lilt in his voice. However, as with Charlize Theron in "Monster," I fear that an undeserved backlash is inevitable, and that misguided critics will dismiss the burning passion that lies at the core of Foxx's performance.

Note how Foxx seems to utterly lose himself in his music, as if the piano is somehow an extension of his soul. The real Ray Charles had a life defined by turmoil, and Foxx is poignant in showing us a man desperately trying to exorcise his inner demons regardless of the cost to himself and his loved ones.

But there are wrong notes, too. The movie has a running time of 152 minutes, and that's just about 32 minutes too long for any film without a behemoth like Spielberg or Tarantino involved. At times, "Ray" literally sings with joy; the conception of "What'd I Say" is a prime example of the film clicking on all cylinders, and is liable to make you tap your foot along with the rhythm. Unfortunately, while "Ray" has its great moments, it also has its share of redundant ones. In particular, the cliche recording studio scenes with "the dubious white folks" realizing that "the black man has it" get tired really, really quickly.

Make no mistake: Ray Charles had an incredible life that merited the cinematic treatment. Not only did he have to face racism as a black man, but his blindness meant that he had to endure mistreatment by his fellow African Americans as well.

Realizing that no one was going to do him any favors, he adopted the attitude that the only person he could rely on was himself. Thus, even as he overcame the stigma of being seen as a "cripple," he failed to see how he was hurting the people who truly cared for him until it was almost too late.

The substance for a powerful film was there; it's just unfortunate that Taylor Hackford was the man directing. Hackford truly lives up to his name -- even with a two-and-a-half hour running time, he still manages to make a film that feels incomplete.

For instance, rather than delving into the more sordid details of Charles' life, he chooses to include a dream sequence of Charles regaining his vision that is so out-of-place that it's almost embarrassing. Moreover, until the last 10 minutes, Hackford makes heroin addiction seem about as dangerous as driving without a seat belt on.

In general, you can sense the film starting to fall apart during the last couple of scenes. Charles' struggle against the Jim Crow laws of the time should have constituted a significant part of the drama, but Hackford's treatment of the material is perfunctory at best. The introduction of a Rasputin-like villain towards the end serves no real purpose, and Charles' emotional reconciliation with his wife Della Bea (Kerry Washington) seems forced and hurried.

Most inexplicably, Hackford decides that Charles' stint in rehab is the optimal point to end the movie before tacking on an epilogue that is jarringly out of left field. It's similar to the college freshman who finds that he only has five minutes left for the essay section on his midterm, and desperately throws in every bit of information he can remember. Coherence and structure need not apply.

The movie is still worth watching for Foxx alone, but Hackford fails his star so thoroughly that it's actually depressing. Not since Daniel Day-Lewis' turn in "Gangs of New York" can I remember such a masterful performance being featured in a movie so mediocre.

Ray Charles will ultimately live on forever, and Foxx's performance is the stuff that legends are made of. "Ray," however, is destined to be lost to the annals of time.