(DreamWorks) Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Nelsan Ellis, Rachael Harris, Stephen Root. Directed by Joe Wright
Friendships can sometimes be formed in the most unlikely of places between the most unlikely of people. These are the sorts of friendships that can be life-altering for both of the parties involved.
Steve Lopez (Downey) is a successful columnist for the Los Angeles Times. While his marriage is on the rocks (to his editor Mary (Keener) no less) and he has been injured in a bicycle accident, his career is at least doing well.
One afternoon he hears music coming from Pershing Square near the Times building and discovers a homeless man sawing away on a two-stringed cello and making astonishing music. This is Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Foxx) and as Lopez later discovers, he was once a prodigy who studied at Julliard before his schizophrenia forced him to drop out of school and essentially from life.
Intrigued, Lopez writes a column about Ayers. A reader, touched by the story, sends a new cello for Ayers which Lopez delivers. This touches off a friendship between the two as Lopez acts as something of a guardian angel for the highly erratic and sometimes explosive Ayers. Lopez follows Ayers to a shelter in downtown L.A. (filming took place on Skid Row where the shelter is located and actual homeless people were used as extras) and inspired, writes a series of articles on the homeless situation in the City of Angels.
This leads to awards and acclaim for Lopez but he feels conflicted about this – like he’s profiting on the plight of his friend. He tries to help him, sets up recitals and an apartment for the former prodigy but Ayers’ mental illness is once again getting in the way. Will the demons in Ayers nature prevent him from leaving the mean streets of L.A.?
Like real life, the movie doesn’t answer this question because this true story is continuing. The real Nathaniel Ayers still lives in Skid Row and while his fame has allowed him to leave the streets, he still grapples with his mental illness.
Director Wright (who previously directed Atonement) has a good eye for detail and uses his L.A. locations to make a gritty, grimy portrayal of the streets which exist in a truly tragic juxtaposition within blocks of the glamour of the Walt Disney Theater in downtown L.A. Oscar-nominated (for Erin Brockovich) screenwriter Susannah Grant has the thankless job of trying to capture Ayers’ madness without compromising the story’s realism and for the most part, she succeeds although she does wander into maudlin territory from time to time though not enough to torpedo the movie.
At the center of the film is the relationship between Ayers and Lopez; if the actors can’t capture that then the film is a disaster. Fortunately, Wright cast two of the better actors working today in Downey and Foxx to tackle the roles and they both do stellar jobs. Downey has the more nuanced role in Lopez; he’s flippant and cynical but with a soft heart. He’s not the stereotypical driven and ambitious journalist; he’s more of an observer than a reporter.
Jamie Foxx resists the urge to over-dramatize the mental illness of Nathaniel Ayers but still manages to effectively portray the demons that torment him. This performance required a master’s hand to pull off and fortunately it got one. I don’t know if this is Foxx’s second Oscar-winning performance (it’s unlikely – the movie was postponed from its original November 2008 release date and relegated to the relatively barren April, when few films get any Oscar consideration) but it certainly merits a look.
Wright and Grant set out to make the movie as real and believable as possible and except for a few hiccups were successful. I like that the movie ended without tying things up in a neat package. I also admire the performances of the lead actors which are so compelling that some fine character actors also cast here are almost shuffled off to the wayside not through any fault of their own.
This movie, possibly because its release date was mishandled, didn’t get the kind of box office love it should have gotten (and might have gotten if the studio had stuck to a fall release date). Still, if you didn’t see it in theaters (and you probably didn’t), this is worth seeking out on home video.
WHY RENT THIS: Both Downey and Foxx turn in outstanding performances. The relationship at the heart of the movie is believable. The resolution of the movie is not really a resolution but ties the events together nicely while ringing true to the realism of the story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story occasionally meanders into the maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of crude language, some drug use and the overall theme of mental illness and homelessness might be a bit much for children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the final concert scene in the movie, the real Nathaniel Ayers Jr. can be seen in the front row of the concert hall.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers Jr. in which the interplay that the actors modeled the relationship on is clearly visible. There is also a feature and an animated short on the situation with homelessness in Los Angeles which has one of the largest homeless populations in the world.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: The Astronaut Farmer