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The Soloist
by Chris Knipp

In Joe Wright's The Soloist, Robert Downey, Jr. plays Steve Lopez, an L.A. Times columnist looking for human interest stories who hits pay dirt when he comes across a wildly dressed homeless black man playing Beethoven on a two-stringed violin in a tunnel. The sound is ragged, but the playing is sophisticated; it turns out to come from a passionate, almost monomaniacal, worship of Beethoven and a great but ravaged talent. The man knows his name, alright, Nathaniel Ayers, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) and takes in who Lopez is, but his talk is mechanical and repetitious. When it emerges that he was once a promising cello student at the Julliiard School, Lopez knows he has a catchy column--with luck, a series of them. This movie is based on the experiences of the actual Steve Lopez and the book he wrote about them. The story it tells is sometimes uplifting--it implies that great (western, classical) music might redeem life in a desperate urban wasteland--and sometimes uninvolving.

But what is the story? Wild and unreasonable expectations on Lopez's part eventually settle into getting Ayers off the streets and enabling him to play music in peace. Along the way we get a glimpse (just a glimpse) of the plight of Los Angeles' huge homeless population. Ayers is schizophrenic. He thinks the columnist is God, and doesn't know if he's standing before him or piloting the jet that's flying over their heads. When a sympathetic lady reads Lopez's column about Ayers and donates a good cello for him to use, it's a nightmare for the journalist to find a way for the man to play the instrument in safety. He won't go anywhere without his huge cartload of junk and doesn't want to live indoors.

The movie is all over the map, with moments of success and others of failure. Lopez's sparring and flirting with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), who's also his editor, often seem extraneous and annoying, their shared drinking problem, inexplicable. We're spared some of the pure corn of Scott Ricks' 1996 Shine, which turned the story of mentally deranged pianist David Helfgott into a Hallmark moment. But Wright is overly in love with long pans and overhead tracking shots, and his use of real homeless people turns them into Dickensian vaudeville. Still, some of his flashy experiments work, notably the sound and light show he interposes to illustrate Beethoven's Third Symphony when Ayers and Lopez hear it at an L.A. Philharmonic rehearsal conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen in Frank Gehry's Disney Symphony Hall. Ayers' earlier mumbled verbal link with Walt Disney's Fantasia leads logically into this dreamy passage, which expresses the universal abstractness of music as well as its possible ability to focus an unstable mind with its airy structures.

Robert Downey Jr's motor-mouthed method acting and Foxx's mnemonic mumbling lead to a number of lost lines, and both actors have done better work than this. At least Downey's habitually sardonic approach keeps his role from getting too soppy, and, if Foxx's celebratory madman-chic outfits are excessive, his performance, especially given the temptations his role presents, is not. But tasteful doesn't mean good. And this is still heavily manipulative material; that's why the journalist seized upon it in the first place. There's no escaping that The Soloist is Oscar-bait stuff. Only now, after the much praised Brit-lit efforts of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, Wright plainly is going for the gold with something more accessible to the less sophisticated. Unfortunately the public and the critics have not been as impressed this time.

Why must art (or musical talent) be linked with madness in the popular mind? Well, a lot of homeless people are mad, and half of them are black, so having a schizophrenic black man who's a wrecked musical talent as a main character is just a colorful way to draw public attention to homelessness in America. If in fact that happens. Actually, Steve Lopez has a lot to learn, but so do most of us. If this movie makes a few new converts to the music of Beethoven, that's good too. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that as a story of a friendship, this one just isn't. Any connection between the ambitious journalist and the schizophrenic homeless man is illusory. The people in this movie from start to finish are just yelling at each other, not communicating. There's a not very hidden subtext here about middle class guilt and feel-good gestures.

©2009 Chris Knipp
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