*** out of ****
It is fitting that a movie about music is really all about sounds. The streets of L.A. come alive with cars honking, people muttering to themselves, and the lone musician playing his sad song on a two-stringed violin.
Robert Downey, Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a writer for the Los Angeles Times whose head is constantly filled with the sound of his own voice writing and re-writing stories to put in the paper. After a nasty bike accident that messes up his face, he meets a homeless black man playing the violin in front of a statue of Beethoven. This man is Nathaniel Ayers (by the end of the movie, you WILL learn how to spell his name), played beautifully and with complete realism by Jamie Foxx, the man who also brought Ray Charles to life. Nathaniel is the classic definition of a crazy bum, as he's dressed like he's onboard an alien spaceship, has a greasy slab of hair combed too tightly, and talks non-stop nonsense reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. The thing that sets him apart from the other bums is his incredible musical ability. He has a need to play constantly to keep his mind at ease and has an obsession with the works of Beethoven. Through flashbacks we learn he went to Julliard and dropped out after he developed schizophrenia- supposedly- and was tortured by the voices in his head. Music was the only thing he could concentrate on. He ran away from home and lived on the street, where the never-ending noise of the city kept the demons at bay.
Steve thinks he can help Nathaniel and writes a story about him. From there, their friendship takes off, with the expected laughs and pitfalls along the way, ending happily as it should. It is at time cliche and at times very unique, one of the latter being when Nathaniel declares that Steve is his God.
The film is rarely silent: it is always filled with orchestral music, overlapping background noise and dialogue, or just the buzz of the air. This aspect roots the film in reality and gives the director (Joe Wright, Atonement) lots of opportunities to fill the audio with whatever he wants. This is also the film's weak spot, as it often goes for the overly weird and symbolic, including a Fantasia-like sequence with just colors representing the music notes. At the end, the movie seemed to be more about music and what we hear on a day-to-day basis than it is about the two men and their story.
Regardless of the film's focus, it is still very watchable, with many funny and touching moments, vignettes from the supporting players as a diverse group of homeless people, and incredible performances from Downey and Foxx. In fact, there isn't a single member of the cast who doesn't do an amazing job with whatever screen time they have. The two leads would have surely been nominated for Oscars had the film opened in November as originally planned. Sadly, it was delayed due to financial reasons (it's not just homeless people feeling the recession; it's affecting big movie studios too) and by the time Oscar season rolls around, this film will be a distant memory.
Maybe that's the way it should be, because the film itself plays out like a complex memory; it's erratic, skips back and forth, and focuses only on the important parts.
I would recommend this film to people who like simple dramas, lovers of classical music, and fans of the stars.
You can watch the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrrLJT4YS9I