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.
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
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