Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl in Rush.

The story of the Formula 1 rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the 1970s is epic, full of seemingly impossible twists and turns.

Rush, Ron Howard’s film about that rivalry, is far from epic.

It’s a period piece in which the audience can feel every wig and every attempt to establish the time period. In other words, Rush never feels authentic, and instead comes off as some decent actors playing dress-up. It also serves up a heaping pile of romantic melodrama that sends the movie off the track and into the bleachers.

Rush is supposed to be a movie about Formula 1 racing, yet the performers spend surprisingly little time behind the wheel. The focus is on their lives off the track, and while that warrants some interest … come on. Show us more racing, and less of Hunt’s boring marital woes.

Chris Hemsworth keeps his Thor hair to play Hunt, a superstar English playboy who is tearing it up on the tracks when egotistical rich-boy Lauda (Daniel Brühl) buys his way into the sport. It turns out Lauda is a decent driver, and their rivalry eventually leads to Formula 1 competition, where the two push themselves during the 1976 season.

It was on a rainy day in Germany when Lauda crashed his car in a near-fatal accident. He suffered major burns to his head and life-threatening damage to his lungs. Amazingly, Lauda came back to race only six weeks later, with his head covered with bloody bandages, to try to preserve his points lead.

With a crazy, real-life premise like that, a movie based on the events should be fantastic—and the two leads are indeed impressive. Brühl, saddled with some big false teeth to physically resemble Lauda, is excellent as the obsessive Austrian. His Lauda is easily the film’s most-compelling character, even when the story line focuses on Lauda’s humdrum love life.

Hemsworth’s Hunt is everything one would expect—and a little more. He likes to party before and after races. He likes to vomit before races because he’s “really” stoked. He likes to wield his mighty hammer and save the human race from invading alien forces. OK, that’s in The Avengers—although what Hemsworth does here isn’t far removed from what he does as Thor. However, Hemsworth catches the mannerisms of Hunt quite accurately, although Hunt comes off as a predictable dullard in many ways. Fault the screenplay for that.

Ron Howard reportedly had just south of $40 million to make the movie; this, perhaps, accounts for the lack of sustained racing sequences. That’s not a lot of money for a movie that demands a lot of vroom-vroom. Perhaps money is a reason why too much screen time is spent on Hunt’s blasé marriage to model Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde, so very good in this year’s Drinking Buddies). Miller left Hunt and ran off with Richard Burton. There was some talk that Russell Crowe would play Burton, but the character wound up being excised from the film. That would’ve been a great cameo.

Howard ends the film strangely, with Bruhl’s Lauda narrating over footage of the actual Lauda and Hunt, discussing the paths their lives took after the movie. An actor talking over footage of the character he just played seems a little odd. It also had me wishing that the movie could have been a biography focusing on Lauda, who is still alive, and Hunt, who passed away from a heart attack at the age of 45. The story is so amazing, and footage of the crucial racing events exists.

How about just interviewing those involved with the story, splicing it all together with race footage, and calling it a day, rather than blowing $40 million? As it turns out, the BBC did a documentary episode on Hunt and Lauda for their Clash of the Titans series. It’s available on YouTube, along with a few other documentaries. They cover all the bases—and render a viewing of Rush moot.

Still, in the pantheon of racing movies, Rush actually ranks high in a rather meager field. It’s much better than Tom Cruise’s Days of Thunder and Sylvester Stallone’s Driven. It’s also better than most of the Fast and Furious movies.

Howard is capable of great moviemaking based on actual events. Apollo 13 is easily his best film, with Frost/Nixon and Cinderella Man ranking in his personal Top 5. Unfortunately, Rush stands alongside the likes of Howard’s The Dilemma and The Missing. It’s a film with a great premise whose tires go bald well before the finish line.

Rush is playing at theaters across the valley.