As Roberta Guaspari, a depressed divorcée who redeems her life by starting a violin-instruction program at an East Harlem grade school, Meryl Streep, in Music of the Heart, labors to make herself shrill and coarse and dislikably authoritarian as strenuously as she used to perfect her accents. You can see what she’s going for – the inner-city teacher as inspirational tough-love drill sergeant – yet Streep is so convincing as a harridan that she forgets to give Roberta a softer, art-loving side; she never quite shows us the character’s reverence for beauty.
The movie, like Roberta herself, is obsessed with the notion of violin mastery as discipline. Roberta’s kids saw away at variations on ”Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but there’s precious little joy or sensuality to their playing, or to Roberta’s teaching. The movie is a sentimental epic that forgets to include the sentiment.
”Music of the Heart” was directed by Wes Craven, a three-decade veteran of the horror genre (his career ranges from ”Last House on the Left” to ”A Nightmare on Elm Street” and the ”Scream” films), and while I do admire his attempt to stretch, Craven, so crafty at timing the swipe of a stiletto-tipped child killer’s glove, has never been much good at conventional dramatic interplay.
There really is a Roberta Guaspari, but this dull, wanly repetitive teacher movie fails to bring her story to life; it lacks the full-bodied detail and passion of, say, ”Mr. Holland’s Opus.” The film’s only genuine angle on Roberta is a distressingly colonial one: She comes into Harlem and saves all these aimless rainbow coalition kids by turning them on to the glories of classical music. If only we felt those glories, the movie might have inspired us, too.