The Soloist (2009)

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The Soloist portrays the importance of the printed word in the time of the decline of major newspapers. It also tells the story of the power of music and friendship.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. While on a break from work, he hears the beautiful sounds of a violin. He looks for the source of the music, finding Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man and musical virtuoso whose two-stringed violin is his one comfort in the world as he plays it under a statue of Beethoven, his favorite composer. Though a bit hesitant about talking to a clearly mentally-unstable man, the reporter in Lopez sees a story. And soon he begins to write a column about Ayers.

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It turns out Ayers was a musical genius as a child, and later studied at Julliard. But it was at Julliard where the darkness of schizophrenia took a hold of Ayers, and before long he was on the mean streets of Los Angeles, pushing his belongings in a rickety shopping cart, trying to survive, music his only friend.

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Lopez’s columns soon make Ayers a celebrity among his readers. And in one pivotal scene, a reader sends a cello to the newspaper office for Lopez to give to Ayers. Ayers, who studied the cello in his younger years, is overcome with gratitude over this simple act of kindness.

Lopez’s relationship soon goes far beyond his byline, and he wants to help Ayers, not just write about him. Of course, wanting to help and actually helping do not always work out easily. Lopez tries to get Ayers involved in Lamp Community, a skid row homeless shelter for the mentally ill. The scenes at Lamp Community are about as far from the glitz and glamour of LA as one can get. The Soloist does not shy away from the ugliness of mental illness. The drug use and violence are very much on display. But The Soloist also gives these people their dignity, often letting them speak in their own words. And Nelsan Ellis, as the Lamp Community’s social worker, David Carter, is very convincing in his role. He is both realistic and compassionate when it comes to the people he is helping at Lamp Community.

Beyond getting Ayers help at the Lamp Community, Lopez also tries to get him medication and an apartment. He also acquires Ayers cello lessons with a local musician, and gets him into a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal at Disney Hall. But not surprisingly, things don’t always go so smoothly. Ayers isn’t too happy about the apartment, feeling more comfortable on open streets of LA. Perhaps, the four walls of the apartment would only remind Ayers of the time he was in his New York apartment as a young man when the tormenting voices of schizophrenia took over his mind. And when Lopez sets up a recital for Ayers to entertain music patrons Ayers becomes overwhelmed and breaks down. Lopez becomes frustrated with Ayers need for him, and at the same time, his tendency to push him away. Yet, Lopez knows he can’t give up on Ayers.

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Both Downey and Foxx are tremendous in their roles. Downey is subtle, the straight man in the relationship. The reporter side of him is curious, but the human side of him is both patient and exasperated with Ayers. Foxx, as Ayers, is at turns paranoid, talkative, angry and fearful. His eyes and body language convey the terror of mental illness, and he often talks in a slipstream of jumbled words that seem to make sense only to him.

At times The Soloist falters like when it uses a light show to show how music affects Ayers. The light show looked right out of a middle school dance circa 1978 and cheapened the experience. I also didn’t like the liberties the movie took with Lopez’s personal life. In the movie, Lopez is divorced from his wife (played by Catherine Keener) who is also his boss, Mary. In real life, Lopez is still very much married to his wife. I have no idea why the screenwriter, Susannah Grant, had to do this. Maybe she did it to bring more drama to the film.

But The Soloist doesn’t need any extra drama. The relationship between Lopez and Ayers is strong enough. The Soloist never gets preachy or wrap things up with a treacly happy ending. Ayers will always be mentally ill, and Lopez will always have to find a story. And just a warning, if you do watch The Soloist, you might want to have some tissues nearby. You’ll find yourself shedding some tears.

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