This is a well-intentioned movie about homelessness, madness, and friendship that didn’t quite make it for me. I didn’t go in expecting another inspirational thing like Shine. This is also a movie about a musical prodigy who ends up homeless and on Skid Row, but Nathaniel Ayers the cellist is not David Helfgott the pianist. Nathaniel was discovered on the streets of LA by Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Times. He wrote a series of articles about him, and managed to get the arts community interested in him for a time. He is an ex-Juilliard student who dropped out when he began hearing voices. Now he has a room at the LAMP men’s shelter, and seems to be a bit better off. Sometimes that’s as good as it gets. Jamie Foxx plays him, and he is very good, as is Robert Downey, Jr., as Lopez.
Nathaniel, like most schizophrenics, is a maddeningly erratic personality. One moment he may seem rational, and the next he is off on his own magical misery tour. He is obsessive, illogical, driven, and can at times possibly be dangerous. At one point Lopez says something that reveals his initial fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. He is driven to somehow make Nathaniel “better,” and he says he merely wants to “Lend a helping hand to someone who has lost his way.” Mr. Lopez, schizophrenics do not “lose their way.” Alcoholics lose their way. Drug addicts lose their way. Losing your way implies that, through discipline and determination, you can find your way back. Schizophrenics suddenly find that there is no way, that the planet has opened up beneath them and they are in free fall. The condition is incurable. Yes, it is treatable, but even that is not so easy. Many of these people find that the drugs which are the only way to even them out make them feel like they’re only half alive, or actually mostly dead. That’s why they go off their medication; in the end, craziness is preferable to anesthesia.
To its credit, the movie does not end with phony happiness. Nathaniel is playing music, and he has made enough progress that he can now live inside without fear … but is that really progress? I can’t judge it. Lopez seems to have come to terms with the notion that his friend will never be “well” (he doesn’t see himself as schizophrenic, and is uninterested in medication), and understands that he can be friends with him without needing to guide his life into places where he doesn’t want to go.
Much of this film was shot in a location the filmmakers seemed to regard as slightly more dangerous than Afghanistan: what the city likes to call the Warehouse District, but is more commonly called Skid Row. Most Angelenos would go ten miles out of their way to avoid driving through this neighborhood. Lee and I have driven through many times, and even—gasp!—walked some of it. (I got a kick in the “Making Of” DVD stuff, when the producer described his shock and dismay when Lopez took him from the fancy restaurant where they were meeting and out on the actual streets of downtown to meet Nathaniel. He was terrified!)
They made a Skid Row set on the other side of the river, four or five blocks long, and populated it with extras who were actual homeless people. I applaud that. They paid them wages, extras get at least one decent free meal per day, and I don’t doubt that being a part of this enterprise bolstered their self-esteem. (The people who run the shelters down there said it did, anyway.) Part of their goal was to shine a spotlight on the awful situation, where the claim is that every night 80,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles. Could that be true? I guess so. Good numbers are hard to come by.
But in making this the film-makers did something I couldn’t at first identify, but which kept nagging at me. I finally got it: They made it all far too interesting. By that I mean Hollywood interesting. The milieu it most resembles is Blade Runner. That’s because set decorators and assistant directors loathe scenes where nothing is happening. I can see it, the ADs taking each extra aside and giving him a little bit of business. “You, walk backwards, talking to yourself.” “You, hop like you’re on a pogo stick.” “You, glare at Robert Downey.” Everybody is doing something, the street is swarming with activity, most of it the behavior of mentally ill or actively dangerous people. It’s Bedlam come to Southern California.
Skid Row is not like that. Sure, many of the people there are mentally ill, and you do see people doing odd things, talking to themselves, sometimes shouting. Maybe one oddball per block. What are most of them doing? Why, just sitting around. The recent ones look a bit stunned: How did this happen to me? A few are industriously pursuing some plan to get out. But most of them are just sitting there, talking to their friends about nothing much. They’ve given up long ago. Being homeless is boring during the daytime. (I suspect it’s more exciting at night, but not in a good way. I wouldn’t go there at night.) There’s not a damn thing to do but guard your shopping cart and push it around here and there merely for a change of scene. The most activity I can recall seeing when I’ve walked through there is somebody coming up to me, apologetically: Hey, bro, can you spare a smoke? I think that, all unintentionally, the filmmakers here made homelessness look even more dangerous than it is, which might make middle- and upper-class people even less inclined to drive though and see the sadness for themselves. This is a minor carp, really, but I had to say it.