A scene from "Downtown Express." (Susan Meiselas )
Manhattan is a gleaming, grime-free zone that's alive with buskers in "Downtown Express," which declares New York the music capital of the world and spins a willfully wide-eyed comic drama from the debatable premise. The unconvincing but gently spirited "Jazz Singer" update features accomplished musicians in the lead roles; the treat is their playing, not their acting.
Mainly this is a showcase for violinist Philippe Quint, an impassioned and charming musician. He plays Russian émigré Sasha, who has landed a scholarship to Juilliard, where he prepares for a recital meant to launch a Carnegie Hall-destined career.
That career is more his father's dream than Sasha's, which becomes increasingly clear when he's drawn to a struggling jazz-pop band and its leader, Ramona (alterna-popster Nellie McKay, distractingly mannered in her nonmusical sequences).
Director David Grubin effectively contrasts the airy glass rehearsal rooms of Juilliard with Ramona's windowless warehouse. But the script by Kathleen Cahill is a stilted rehash of a stock setup: the tug-of-war between father and son, the pull of the Old World versus the lure of the new.
The additional conflict between Sasha's father, Vadim (Michael Cumpsty), and his teacher (Carolyn McCormick) feels as manufactured as the intimacy that eventually develops between them.
Fiery Vadim warns against the sentimentality of Tchaikovsky if played too cautiously. In this cautious valentine to New York, even dumpster diving has a scrubbed sheen. The insistent sense of wonder grows wearing. The celebration of music rings true.
"Downtown Express." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino.