|Robert Downey Jr.||Steve Lopez|
|Jamie Foxx||Nathaniel Anthony Ayers|
|Catherine Keener||Mary Weston|
|Tom Hollander||Graham Claydon|
|Lisagay Hamilton||Jennifer Ayers-Moore|
|Directed by||Joe Wright|
Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx) is a solitary figure. Isolated amid the tumult of Los Angeles, he stands beneath a statue of Beethoven in a city park, coaxing beautiful music out of a violin bereft of a couple of strings while pedestrians and traffic eddy heedlessly around him. But he is not alone. His head is filled with the jumbled voices of his schizophrenia.
His music attracts the attention of Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), an L.A. Times columnist on the lookout for a story. Lopez chats him up, no easy feat with the verbally profuse Ayers, who pours forth jittery torrents of stream-of-consciousness. Eventually the journalist discovers that this homeless street musician was once a prodigy with a brilliant career ahead of him (Ayers was a Juilliard classmate of Yo-Yo Ma, and yes, this is based on a true story).
Lopez wrote a series of columns about Ayers. The attention they attracted sold newspapers, changed Ayers's life, and created a bond between the two men. Lopez put it all into a book called The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music.
The movie version of this, directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Susannah Grant, hits some of the right notes, but too often it seems to lose track of the score. It does a good job suggesting the uneasy line this situation threads between good Samaritanism and exploitation. Lopez's first column on Ayers elicits the gift of a concert cello from a reader (here an old lady with arthritis, in real life a business executive), and the writer uses the instrument as a lure to entice the street-dwelling Ayers into Lamp Community, a homeless shelter. Lopez is concerned that his subject's new notoriety and the expensive instrument could make him a target of predators, but it takes a lot of convincing (and the promise of lessons from the first cellist of the LA Philharmonic) to get the homeless musician to give up his pavement quarters under the stars among the rats and garbage, and accept a place with walls, a door, and a ceiling.
The movie's stars are both excellent actors, and they do a lot to personalize the story. Foxx in particular paints a vivid and moving portrait of the troubled musician (you can meet the real Mr. Ayers at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjlmTTLGnL8&feature=related). We get flashbacks to Ayers's boyhood and his mental breakdown during a rehearsal at Juilliard, but we never really get a sense of what happened to him. Presumably the seeds of his schizophrenia were smoldering in his DNA – as a boy he already shows the tendency to rattle on verbally a mile a minute. And who knows where that malady springs from anyway? Foxx treats his character with a focused simplicity that rings true.
Downey has a harder time of it, perhaps because the filmmakers have taken the decision to improve on the original. In this version, the happily married Lopez is re-imagined with an estranged wife (Catherine Keener) who is his editor at the paper. The idea is that they are both loners who learn something of value from each other in this relationship. This seems to have been the case in real life, but it's not a case that stood strongly enough on its own merits with the creative team behind the movie. Even less comprehensible is a horrific bicycling accident Lopez sustains at the opening, rearranging his face into horror-movie lineaments, which keeps us puzzling over its purpose deep into the story as the scars heal. Downey fills out the retooled character of Lopez with his own familiar world-weary hipness, which always entertains, but doesn't always illuminate.
There's good supporting work, particularly from Keener, Nelsan Ellis as the Lamp director, and LisaGay Hamilton in a small role as Ayers's sister. And Wright has drawn his extras at the shelter from the ranks of the L.A. homeless, which adds an effective note of reality.
Wright, the English director responsible for the recent love-'em-or-hate'em adaptations of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement (both with Keira Knightley), is an artist given to pretentiousness. Here he surrenders to his weakness with visions of soaring pigeons to demonstrate musical rapture, and a bizarre extended sequence of a light show of Fantasia-esque pulsating colors to dramatize Ayers' experience at an L.A Philharmonic rehearsal of Beethoven's 3rd. Wright also gives in to moments of slapstick, as when Downey slips on his own urine in a hospital, or wrestles with bags of coyote urine as he faces down raccoons invading his lawn in scenes that call to mind Caddyshack. These moments of pee-drenched movie hilarity don't do a thing to advance the merits of the story.
In the hands of a director more suited to the material “The Soloist” might have been a deeply moving experience. Here, we know something important is being played out before us, and there are times when it hits home with force. But in their exercise of dramatic license, the filmmakers have let some of the power of the inspiring story slip away. The delay of the movie's release from Oscar season to the relative quiet of spring suggests that the studio had some inkling this might be the case.
© Text 2009 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be