‘Rush’: No hurry to see it

September 23, 2013

rush

Ron Howard’s “Rush” is winning all sorts of praise as being daring (for taking on subject matter that apparently isn’t an automatic audience magnet), a throwback to the 1970s (when filmmakers took more risks) and just plain sexy and exciting.

Yet I found it to be exactly as middlebrow and mainstream as most of Howard’s oeuvre. Make no mistake: Howard is a skilled craftsman who understands how to tell a story in a way that is engaging and audience-friendly. But no matter how many times he says that he was attracted to “Rush” because it was “sexy and cool,” well, it doesn’t necessarily make it so.

If anything, “Rush” shows the limitations of a passion project, in this case one initiated by playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan. The author of “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon” (among others), Morgan is a writer with a strong sense of how to make the nuts-and-bolts of history interesting by showing it in human terms.

With “Rush,” he shows his fanboy side. While he and Howard can talk about how hard they worked to show that the two central characters were assholes – but lovable assholes – the characters turn out to be lovable rascals: the one a flamboyant natural, the other a detail-centric nerd with a touch of genius.

“Rush” is based on the true story of Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), who hit the peak of their long-running rivalry in the mid-1970s. The film focuses on a single season: 1976, when the two dominated the sport and cut whatever corners they could (well, Hunt cut corners; Lauda calculated them) to defeat each other.

We get a little backstory, showing the British playboy Hunt dominating the Formula Three circuit, eager to land the lucrative sponsorships and enhanced spotlight of Formula One (which includes the various Grand Prix tracks). Hunt teases the super-serious Lauda, then bristles when Lauda jumps to the higher circuit before he can.

Once they’re there, Lauda tends to dominate, because he is as concerned about his machine’s performance as about his own. He studies the tracks and understands how to tweak various components of his car to adjust it to various tracks to extract the maximum performance out of it. Hunt, by contrast, wants to just get into his car and drive fast.

The fulcrum point of the film is a fiery crash in which Lauda is almost killed. His comeback from severe burns and the resumption of his rivalry with Hunt provide the film’s climax.

Maybe it’s just me but watching auto-racing – whether on TV or on film – isn’t particularly compelling. You’re always conscious of the camera and the contrivance. And as good as Bruhl is as an actor, Hemsworth isn’t good enough to draw you into the minimal emotional journey on which he takes Hunt.

It all feels fairly pro forma and formulaic – the climb, the fall, the phoenix-like return (literally, from fire), blah blah blah. Hemsworth’s Hunt gets involved with a British model (Olivia Wilde), but the connection feels manufactured and convenient, rather than important to the story – here’s the love interest and oops, there she goes because he loves his cars more than he does her. Shocking.

Let me put it this way: I didn’t find “Rush” remotely exciting, though I understand why some people would. But chatter about it as an Oscar contender is simply laughable. It’s a solid popcorn movie, nothing more.

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