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For many Americans, the really important horse race is about to get underway, and it has nothing to do with Bush or Kerry. At least here in Los Angeles, the nascent Oscar contest generates the same sort of blog handicapping and fervid speculation that most normal people relegate to the presidential election. And like the political primaries, the Academy Awards have their yearly frontrunners, surprises and absolute total busts.

Although the Oscars don't get handed out until February, Ray, the life story of the recently deceased Ray Charles, had already earned itself a front seat in the Best Actor sweepstakes before the general


population even got to see the movie. Indeed, the print ads, the reviews and certainly the interviews with Jamie Foxx, the man who plays Brother Ray, have focused less on the overall quality of the film and more on how tremendous the performance is.

Which should make you worry.

Thanks to a fortunate combination of events -- the type Hollywood


studios always pray for this time of year -- Foxx's portrayal is a mortal lock for an Oscar nod. First, the film is a biopic of a famous, troubled genius, something Academy voters almost always reward. Second, that real-life genius recently passed away, generating a new volume of goodwill and adoration for the musician's near-bottomless supply of great songs. Third, Foxx (like past winners Robin Williams and Tom Hanks) started his career as a comedian, moving on to serious roles in Any Given Sunday, Ali and this year's Collateral. Oscar loves when funny people go dramatic; apparently, that transformation proves an actor's deep devotion to his craft. Fourth, despite the considerable flaws of Ray, Foxx gives a heartfelt, dedicated impersonation/performance -- one that even includes a handicap. Whether you're Sean Penn in I Am Sam, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Charlize Theron in Monster, it's damn hard to win the Oscar without suffering from mental retardation, a limp, weight problems or blindness. It's very important that the award-hungry thespian doesn't play a "normal" person -- that way, you demonstrate just how well you can act.

As for the final reason Foxx is a shoo-in, and it's regrettable but it's true: He's a well-liked black man playing a well-liked black artist. Any chance the Academy's predominately white membership can show itself to be "progressive," to congratulate itself for its unbiased attitudes, you'd better believe it won't pass up the opportunity.

Please note that the quality of the movie has no bearing on these factors. All that matters, as far as most voters are concerned, is how good Foxx is in the role. Maybe. But as impressive at it is, his performance is part of what's wrong with Ray. In fact, Foxx's commendable work makes the film all the more disappointing. Trying to channel Charles, Foxx falls into the same traps that Academy voters do when they determine what is Oscar-worthy. He goes for prestige when he shoulda focused on guts.

A lifetime ago, Jamie Foxx simply went for laughs, on TV's In Living Color and in "urban" (read: whites won't go see 'em) comedies like Booty Call. Since then, though, he's pushed into more substantial parts whose acclaim generally boiled down to the slightly condescending "Hey, that funny black guy can act!" His egomaniacal young quarterback in Any Given Sunday impressed a lot of people with its intensity and sheer bravado -- he even got one of those backstory-definining monologues that always dazzle other actors -- but the character's transformation from scared third-stringer to overnight sensation felt pat. Foxx made it unique only because no one expected such skill from the likes of him. He improved with Collateral, his beaten-down-but-hopeful cab driver more grounded and believable than Tom Cruise's increasingly unrealistic philosophy-spouting hit man.

But Ray gives Foxx a chance to anchor a high-profile, 150-minute studio movie, and he embodies the mannerisms of Ray Charles expertly. He better have. By now, perhaps you've heard that to prepare for the role he sealed his eyes shut 14 hours a day, and is an expert pianist, and all the other bells and whistles. As a rule, I find all those behind-the-scenes machinations of actors' methods utterly boring. You do what the role requires, period. It's not the process that should impress, it's the final product.

Nevertheless, critics seem so jazzed by the transformation that few acknowledge that Foxx never comes close to nailing the essence of Charles, that he never gives us an opinion on the man famously referred to as "The Genius," that it's all a pleasant pantomime without a personal stamp. His ability to effortlessly morph into the gyrations and big smile of Charles suggest the sincerity of Foxx's commitment to the role. But in pursuit of a flawless physical re-creation, he misses the larger life force, and so do his writer, James L. White, and especially his director, Taylor Hackford.

In all their attempts to be reverent, exact, biographical -- in their slavish need to get every single moment of the Ray Charles life up there on the screen in the proper rise-and-fall-and-rise-again storytelling structure -- the filmmakers and Foxx never bothered to decide who their subject was. Oh, we see that Charles went blind at an early age, got hooked on heroin, had huge problems with fidelity and encountered racism … but aren't people more than the sum of their résumé? Any journalist doing a profile piece knows that a life needs shaping, a means of tying all the disparate strands together into a coherent whole. Sure, a director and his actor risk angering some devotees by imposing their own will onto a biopic's stodgy, bump-de-bump retelling of real-life events, but when you're dealing with an artist who dared to merge musical genres and follow his own rambling muse, how the hell do you portray that life in such an unexciting way?

Listen to Ray Charles' music -- the despair of "You Don't Know Me," the rollicking bluesy humor of "Busted," the horniness of "Night Time Is the Right Time," the romantic disillusion of "Hide Nor Hair" -- and you'll access a strong emotional well of soul and gospel. You can't not respond to these tunes. Indeed, the playback of Ray's hits during the movie easily outclasses a pedestrian narrative which focuses everything on the death of his brother in childhood and the evils of smack. More earnest than inventive, Foxx does as much as he can with such banalities. In the things-are-going-good scenes, he's ebullient. In the things-are-going-bad scenes, he's troubled. But all the connecting tissue goes missing. Where's the humor that a poor, blind, ridiculed black kid would need to survive in the segregated South? Where's the tawdry, naughty delight in screwing around behind your wife's back -- where's the human understanding that such temptations were simply too seductive to resist? Where's the illicit thrill that drugs must have brought to a young Ray Charles on the road? The man's songs freely acknowledge the sin-to-be-saved pulse of flawed, decent people: Where precisely is such contradiction in the movie? Foxx doesn't scratch that surface. How could he? The filmmakers would rather deal with highlight events than mapping the emotional journey of a complicated individual. It's the safe way to go, and it certainly won't anger Academy members who like their biopics clean, uncomplicated, and easy to follow.

Because Ray Charles is so universally revered, maybe it's hard for some people to criticize Ray's biopic-y tedium. (It's akin to assuming that if you don't like Shoah, you're an anti-Semite or that if you quibble with Fahrenheit 9/11 you're a red-state heehaw.) Along with that, Foxx so clearly delights in playing the character that it seems ungracious to moan. But music bios needn't be so stately to be effective. Actually, isn't that actually the wrong way to go about it?

A lifetime ago, a feverishly talented filmmaker named Oliver Stone worked with an opinionated, volatile actor named Val Kilmer on The Doors, a flawed, overlong, indulgent movie about the '60s group. But what a blast it was. Stone captured the decadence of the era; his staging of concert scenes may still be the best ever attempted. And Kilmer's chameleon-like interpretation of Jim Morrison is nothing short of brilliant -- and not just because Kilmer looked and sounded like Morrison, by the way. Kilmer went beyond mimicry; from the first moment, he exudes Morrison's spirit, that charismatic combination of danger, sex appeal, poetry, insecurity and artistry. Kilmer makes the Lizard King the force of nature he was in life. The Doors, marshaled by two people's willingness to imbue their film with their subject's basic essence, communicates why popular music seduces us, inspires us, looks like the greatest job in the world.

Who would feel the same watching Ray? Hackford gives the proceedings such a solemn tone that popular music feels less like an undeniable urge than just something somebody does. And while Charles could sure make it seem effortless, Foxx never once makes us marvel at the quick mind and courage needed to see the connections between the devil's music and the devotional grace of gospel. Does Foxx look like Ray Charles? Oh yeah, without question. Does he feel like Ray Charles? Unfortunately, no. Will any of this matter to the people who hand out awards? Not a chance.

Believe the Hype rating: 3 out of 10.
(10 being completely worth it, 1 being full of hot air)


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Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.