Opening 10 Dec 2009
Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr) seriously needs a fresh story idea; the paper’s stock has fallen and he wants to keep his job. He turns to the streets and happens on a homeless man, passionately playing a battered two-stringed cello with extraordinary skill. Lopez realizes this is a story, but ascertains the guy is schizophrenic. He writes a series of columns about this gifted street musician, all the while attempting to discover his true identity.
Lopez discovers that one Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), disturbed, ragged and overwhelmed by inner demons, was an exceptionally gifted student at Juilliard School of Music, destined for a great career when he abruptly dropped out after a couple of years and disappeared into the bowels of Skid Row poverty. Slowly a fragile bond grows; a reader sends her beloved cello to the paper and Lopez gives it to him. Ayers trusts and Lopez helps. Lopez enables Ayers: he persuades him to go to a homeless shelter, finds him an apartment and locates Ayers’s sister, Jennifer (Lisa Gay Hamilton). But in his desire to help, Lopez pushes his new-found friend too hard to a dangerous precipice.
Downey Jr encapsulates the transference from self-absorbed interest to a caring, committed friend with quiet intensity, while Foxx skitters between what was and what is: a (deranged) genius, whose choice allows him his own perception of freedom. Based on Steve Lopez’s book, with Susannah Grant’s screenplay, the story is compelling: sanity to mental illness and then survival on society’s outer-most edge. However, director Joe Wright strays; the film is enmeshed in sterile, clichéd visuals of urban affluent society mirrored with the squalor of inner city poverty. Distracting, unnecessary. Wrapped in Beethoven and Bach, this film’s moving story is nevertheless well-worth seeing. (Marinell Haegelin)