If you’re expecting sentimentality you’ll be sadly mistaken – director Joe Wright’s adaptation of the real world Steve Lopez’s (Robert Downey Jr in the film) book about his real life relationship with Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx) might have a thin plot, but it’s well-steered into territory which is occasionally awkward. Sure the pitfalls are there – journalist desperate for a story finds musical prodigy on the streets and tries to help, not acknowledging to himself that his helping is pretty much entirely an opportunity to boost his own ego. With actors less capable than Downey and Foxx this could have descended into trite schmalz, but Wright gets two powerhouse performances by actors at the top of their game, who lift this into much more interesting fare. Downey particularly impresses – even though he doesn’t play the character afflicted with mental illness, he himself recently survived his own brush with madness, and it clearly affects his performance. Where his Lopez could have come across as merely egotistical or overly ambitious or insensitive, Downey allows his own feelings about Ayers’ reality to shine through. That mixture of anger and fear won’t be his big moment – there’s clearly at least one Oscar in his future – but I don’t think we have much longer to wait.
Foxx in turn plays Ayers with an unaffected grace, yet leaves no doubt this is a tormented character. He imbues Ayers with an easily recognisable humanity, whilst emphasizing just how impossible it is to truly know him (and how impossible it is for him to know himself). No there isn’t a happy ending, but no it’s not all doom and gloom either – writer Susannah Grant’s screenplay leaves serious questions over Ayers’ ultimate fate, and whilst she’s occasionally a bit preachy, succeeds nonetheless at balancing out difficult social issues around mental illness with the need to entertain. Given that Downey’s Steve Lopez fails to handle the same issues compassionately it’s no mean feat. There are clunky bits – all the scenes involving Tom Hollander’s cringeworthy cello teacher are poorly thought out – but otherwise this is above average fare which is well worth your time.
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