The very existence of "Music Within," the year's best movie about the development of hiring guidelines for the Department of Health and Human Services, is somewhat baffling. The new film imposes all the dramatic highs and lows of traditional biopics like "Gandhi" and "Ray" on the life of a man whose online biography describes him as a "consultant, keynote speaker, professional trainer, and author of numerous curricula and training guides." It is not, on its face, a story waiting to be told.
The film tells the true and extremely complete saga of Richard Pimentel (played by Ron Livingston), a high school debate team member who goes to war, comes home with a bad case of tinnitus, enrolls in college, dates a pretty girl, and goes on to a satisfying career in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Mr. Pimentel seems to be a hard-working, good-hearted bureaucrat who should look back on his life so far with real pride — but so is Donna Shalala, and we probably don't need a 93-minute movie about her life, either.
Ah, well. Like the version of Mr. Pimentel it depicts, "Music Within" is competent but not very exciting. The filmmakers, including director Steven Sawalich, earnestly match every biographical point in the protagonist's life with a trope of the standard-issue film biography, starting with a troubled childhood. The movie opens with Richard's mother (Rebecca De Mornay) suffering a series of miscarriages before giving birth to him. Mr. Livingston ("Office Space") brings his usual charm to the role of the adult Richard, though he looks like a shaggily cute 30-something boyfriend all the way through the story's 50-year arc. And sometimes the movie's exhaustively literal approach just doesn't make sense: Richard's father, mentioned and glimpsed only briefly, is Asian, though Mr. Livingston doesn't look it in the least; so why mention it?
Richard becomes the star of his high school debate team in the 1960s, but is rejected during a college debate team tryout for having too much attitude. We aren't shown many debating scenes, but we are repeatedly reminded of its importance in Richard's life, and the coach (Hector Elizondo) apparently remains a mentor. Opting for a tour of duty in Vietnam, Richard loses much of his hearing in a bomb blast and is afflicted with an excruciating case of ringing in his ears. Returning home, he makes friends with Art Honeyman (the excellent Michael Sheen, who recently played Tony Blair in "The Queen"), a brilliant, foul-mouthed man with cerebral palsy. Richard learns to read lips, and somewhere along the way is fitted for an effective hearing aid. He and his girlfriend, Christine (Melissa George), move in together and fight about how often he travels for work. This prompts a montage of Richard sipping scotch at various hotel bars, but since he's apparently not an alcoholic and doesn't cheat on her, why shouldn't the man have a scotch? And for that matter, why shouldn't he travel for work? Much later, he becomes an activist for the Americans with Disabilities Act, but we aren't shown exactly what role he played, and these scenes feel hasty and vague.
"Music Within" leans lazily on montages set to familiar pop songs to move the plot along. When that movie is about a man who's almost deaf, it's all the more confounding. In Vietnam, the Animals sing "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." Back on campus, Richard meets his gorgeous hippie girlfriend to the sounds of "It's Your Thing, Do What You Want to Do." When they begin dating, despite the fact that she already has a live-in boyfriend, it's "Stuck in the Middle With You."
In a coda, we learn that Richard is now a motivational speaker to Fortune 500 companies, and he and Christine "still keep in touch." In life, that's more than many of us can expect. But in the annals of triumphant movie endings, it's not exactly "Rudy."