Tom Hiddleston Can't Rescue Sluggish "I Saw The Light"

In an alternate universe where the music biopic has yet to be reduced to cinematic Easy Mac – add water, microwave, add cheese powder, serve – “I Saw The Light” might go down as an adequate look into the life of the late country music superstar Hank Williams. Tom Hiddleston (“The Avengers”) makes for a strong lead, doing his best to connect a disconnected life. Williams was a rough, cruel man with charm and talent for miles.

But the film housing the performance is a blank, the kind of vending machine for genre cliches that cult classic comedy “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” skewered oh-so-well all the way back in 2007.

Has it been that long?

In 2016, writer-director Marc Abraham’s long-in-development film has no excuse for being as dull as it is, especially considering its star’s exuberance. Hiddleston – with a twinkle in his eye that won’t quit – and co-star Elizabeth Olsen sparkle, only to be swallowed up by a thick fog of formula that hangs throughout.

Even the film’s title is bereft of meaning. Indiscriminately taken from one of its subject’s most famous songs, “I Saw The Light” has no real significance to the story.

Opening on a quickie wedding in an auto body shop between Williams and musician Audrey Sheppard (Olsen), the picture proceeds to halfheartedly hit on all the important events over the next (and final) ten years of Williams’ life without a single dramatic crescendo. No, Abraham’s lethargic screenplay never really makes it out of that garage.

The stormy relationship between Hank and Audrey is inevitably the crux of the film, with the latter taking on two discordant roles: wife and manager. Their hasty union is no salve for Hank’s burgeoning alcoholism, their moments of remarkable musical success punctuated by disastrous drug and alcohol abuse.

Williams’ ascension from radio show host to bona fide musical legend is a tale that should bring with it moments of onscreen jubilation. But while Hiddleston impresses with his musical chops – the various musical interludes are undoubtedly the movie’s best scenes – there are no revelatory moments that cut to what made Williams special. Only perfunctory narrative choices that we’ve seen a hundred times over, in everything from “Ray” to “Walk The Line” to, yes, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”

When Hank Jr. enters the picture, Williams’ alcoholism essentially disintegrates his marriage and the screenplay moves from bland to befuddling. Abraham gives Hiddleston nothing to work with in regards to Williams’ real-life persona – the actor is far too likable throughout – doing his best to improvise emotions that clearly were not on the page. Credit to the actor for trying, but with so little help from his writer-director, it’s a fool’s errand.

Abraham’s direction is as inert as his writing, resulting in uniformly pedestrian shot selection and a swath of pixelated, enlarged establishing shots ostensibly because Marc Abraham had no vision for the film’s visuals while he was on set.

“I Saw The Light” contains a few glimpses of the great Hank Williams movie that might have been, but it’s a passion project short on passion and even shorter on ingenuity. If it’s remembered at all, it’ll be for two fine lead performances interred in a film that’s flatter than a silver dollar pancake.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: March 25, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Marc Abraham
Screenwriter: Marc Abraham
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones, Bradley Whitford, Maddie Hasson, Wrenn Schmidt
MPAA Rating: R (for some language and brief sexuality/nudity)