| This humanitarian drama touches on the redemptive power of music to soothe a troubled mind. It revolves around a friendship between Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr. from “Iron Man” and “Chaplin”), a Los Angeles Times reporter, and Nathaniel Ayres Jr. (Jamie Foxx from “Ray” and “Dreamgirls”), a schizophrenic, ex-Julliard cellist living on the streets of downtown L.A.
Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Erin Brokovich”) based this true story on the book written by Lopez that is a compilation of a series of columns written about the lost dream of this musical prodigy.
The movie was originally set for pre-Thanksgiving release to be in the running for year-end awards consideration. A crowded marketplace was given as the reason for the date change, but the heavy subject matter and the serious and depressing tone turned this likely Oscar bait sour.
The socially conscious, public service message about the plight of the homeless on the streets of major U.S. cities seems to be the real aim of this movie and is a far cry from being considered entertainment. It opens your eyes to the less fortunate souls in the world. You almost expect a plea to open your wallets or purses and send a donation to some worthy charity. It would have worked better as a documentary.
Ayres wears strange clothing and his motor mouth sends out a steady stream of random thoughts. He never makes eye contact and is troubled by strange voices in his head. His only solace comes from playing or listening to classical music. His idol is Beethoven.
The divorced Lopez initially befriends this eccentric vagrant because he views him as a Pulitzer-worthy cash cow. His affection grows as he learns the details of his subject’s past, which are revealed in flashbacks.
Lopez tries to be a Good Samaritan by obtaining an apartment for Ayres and setting him up with cello lessons. Ayres resents being treated as a charity case and suspects that anyone getting too close is trying to hurt him.
It is hard to sympathize since the whole street culture of drugs, prostitution and violent crime is beyond the grasp of an ordinary citizen.
Catherine Keener (“Into the Wild,” “Capote” and “Being John Malkovich”) and Lisa Gay Hamilton (“The Practice”) make the most of their small supporting roles as Lopez’s boss/ex-wife Mary and Ayres’s sister Jennifer. Dramatic license was taken with Lopez’s character, who is happily married in real life. Foxx, a classically trained pianist, was taught stringed instruments by a cellist with the L.A. Philharmonic. The classical music interludes are too few and far between to give the movie any spiritual uplift.
Wright frequently switches to aerial shots of the freeway system when the material bogs down. The movie’s clumsy attempts at humor consist of two incidents involving spilled urine. The slow pacing will put some in the audience to sleep.
The movie bears a close resemblance to a slightly better “Resurrecting the Champ,” which revolved around boxing rather than music. The filmmakers should have taken a few cues from “Marley & Me,” which had a sweet and endearing quality while employing a similar framing device in the relationship between a sympathetic newspaper columnist and his subject.
The better alternative if you are looking for a music-infused biopic is the Oscar-nominated “Shine,” which garnered a Best Actor statuette for Geoffrey Rush in the lead role.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"