Ray (2004)

There is a fine line between an “impressive” performance and a “great” one, and I think Jamie Foxx treads that line throughout the entirety of Ray. Surely, nobody can question the accomplishment of the role: Foxx physically transforms into someone truly believable as a blind genius. His tics are a bit exaggerated, but the gusto of the performance carries the movie. Foxx is also a talented performer when singing Ray Charles’s songs; it thus disappointed me when Ray very obviously started piping in recordings of the real Charles about halfway through the film.

As charismatic and overwhelming as Foxx’s performance is… is it actually good? Not always. Foxx is so preoccupied with capturing the physical details of Charles, he sometimes forgets to find the interiority of the character. Where is the tortured soul of Charles that drives the film’s central themes? Foxx conveys no menace or despair, so his performance comes across as a big display of spectacle more than actual acting.

That said, I did like portions of Ray more than the typical musician biopic. The beginning is extremely choppy and the ending is a catastrophe; but, with its epic runtime, that still leaves about two hours of pretty good (if draggy) material.

Taylor Hackford, the director and co-writer, finds a good balance between the epic and the intimate; we get a sense of the complex person that Charles is, of all the conflicting kindness and demons he faces. Hackford teases out the parallels between Ray’s music — a blend of saintly gospel and sinful R&B — and his life — a constant struggle for dignity and virtue against the temptation of drugs and women.

I appreciate that Ray takes some major swings in its filmmaking: its flashbacks are Biopic 101 cliches, but they’re shot with such emotionally stark gravity that they kind of work. Weird moments of fantasy, when Charles’s fears and regrets are literalized in surreal sequences, add to the sense of that this is a spiritual quest as much as a biopic.

And then there’s the last twenty minutes. It’s a swing, for sure; but a major whiff. I’m not sure why Hackford decided to turn rehab into a trippy bit of formal experimentation, but goddamn is it jarring and ugly, totally disjointed from anything else in the movie. At which point, the movie basically just ends (closing with a flash forward and some title cards), as if Hackford just ran out of storytelling material rather than finding an actual conclusion.

On the visual front, Ray is excellent. PaweĊ‚ Edelman as cinematographer does some outstanding work: The colors are lovely and rich; the ever-present joint smoke adds a pleasing haziness to the texture; and the stage scenes in particular have a shimmering beauty to them.

But I keep coming back to how hackneyed the story is, even when it works. Ray desperately wants to be a great film, but it isn’t, despite Jamie Foxx’s prodigious effort.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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