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Looking to feel good? Then "Music of the Heart" strikes just the right note.

Playing to the Audience

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OK, be afraid. Be very afraid. Undisputed master of the teen-slasher/horror flick Wes Craven has taken a stab at heartwarming. Shockingly, he proves just as adept at tear-jerking as he is at making us scream. His latest work, the sentimental, feel-good flick "Music of the Heart," is fit fare for anyone seeking a little inspiration.

However, if one is feeling even the slightest bit cynical, "Music of the Heart" will play like one long sour note. Sweetly uplifting will soon feel like mawkish pandering and even the very talented cast — which boasts another Meryl Streep workaday Madonna portrait — will set those cynical choppers on edge.

But let me shout it out here and now: I am a sap. Yes, I'm a sucker for a good, old-fashioned four-hankie weeper that doesn't insult my intelligence. So, even though I had nary a doubt about how this latest entry in the "triumphant teacher" genre would end, I bellied up to the box office with eager anticipation. You know, every now and then a cathartic sure-thing is just what the cinema doc ordered.

"Music of the Heart" is based on a "true story," which is usually a giveaway that what you are about to see takes itself a little too self-righteously.

And the first hour of Craven's attack of conscience certainly fits that mold. Pamela Gray's screenplay overflows with hackneyed clichés as we watch La Streep, as new music teacher Roberta Guaspari, attempt to teach inner-city elementary students to play the violin. But just when you're about to give up on this cookie-cutter, teacher-as-saint beginning, and Streep's high-pitched performance, the movie opens up to show us Roberta's flaws and personal struggles. Here's where Streep shines, giving us a Roberta full of anger and frustration and fear as a single mother trying to get back into the workforce after being abandoned by her husband. Every assumption she made for her life and kids is shattered, as she tries to eke out an existence in East Harlem. Her scenes with sons Nick (Michael Angaro and then Charlie Hofheimer) and Lexi (Henry Dinhoffer and then Kieran Culkin) feel especially authentic.

As quickly as Streep's Roberta wins the respect of her fellow teachers and the goodwill of the community, the movie jumps ahead a decade. It's now the '90s and Roberta's classes are about to take a hit in the school budget. School principal Angela Bassett, who was reluctant to hire Roberta at first, is now one of her biggest supporters. Putting their heads together, the two concoct a way to prove the value of music and Roberta's job: In the time-honored tradition dating back to the "Little Rascals," they decide to put on a show. Not just any show, mind you, but a full-fledged concert at Carnegie Hall.

In keeping with such earnest, uplifting story lines, this concert becomes the movie's earnest, uplifting climax. As I write this, I must admit being struck by just how hokey it all sounds. And for good reason, "Music of the Heart" is hokey. It wants nothing more than to make you feel good. Like "Mr. Holland's Opus," "Dangerous Minds," or "Stand and Deliver," everyone involved works toward that final, uplifting moment when Roberta's kids validate her art, her dedication and her perseverance.

If you're looking for true inspiration, yes, there are other better movies. But for this pre-holiday season, "Music of the Heart's" formulaic approach and PG-rating are a welcome relief. With nary an utterance of profanity nor a moment of violence — even the sudden death of one student is underplayed — "Music of the Heart" strikes the right, if predictable, note.

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