All around Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), everything seems to be broken or breaking. The newspaper is losing readers and laying off staff. His marriage to editor Mary Weston (Catherine Keener) is over. He is estranged from their son and lived amidst unpacked boxes. His eye is swollen shut and his face scraped raw from a bicycle accident. And he lives in a city with the highest homeless population in the country. When he meets a homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) on the street, playing a violin with only two strings, Lopez sees him as material for the column, and then as a problem — unlike so many others — he could solve.
The real-life story of Lopez and Ayers, as documented in Lopez’s book
and on “60 Minutes,” has now become a feature film written by one of Hollywood’s most established screenwriters, Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich,” “In Her Shoes,” “Catch and Release”), directed by one of today’s most gifted directors, Joe Wright (the Kiera Knightly “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement”), and starring two of the biggest stars. Everyone is diligent and sincere but it never really decides what it wants to be. It is part social commentary, part personal growth, and large part one of those “I learned so much more from you than you did from me”/”none so blind as those who will not see” stories, making it seem that the agony of mental illness is all about helping the rest of us feel better about our lives. Both men are soloists in their own way, and both do learn that relationships can affect brain chemistry.
The detours into Ayers’ life before he became mentally ill are distracting rather than illuminating and the efforts to portray his distorted perceptions are superficial and unpersuasive. It never comes anywhere close to films like A Beautiful Mind in conveying mental disturbance. Foxx struggles but never makes us feel that his portrayal is more than a collection of tics and twitches. The far better chemistry and more interesting relationship is between Lopez and a sympathetic social worker, beautifully played by Nelsan Ellis. Wright’s striking visuals are arresting and Downey’s performance is always enthralling, fascinating, and utterly present. The inconsistency of the rest of the film, however, makes him more of a soloist than intended.