Friday, December 10, 2010

THE SOLOIST (2009): Another Homeless Man

The Soloist is about a hardboiled and imaginative journalist named Steven Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) befriending a talented and mentally ill homeless musician named Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx).  I give Director Joe Wright and the screenwriters credit for not sentimentalizing this film to the same degree as most mainstream movies.  I do fault them for failing to provide us with a movie that is memorable.

Lopez, after having a bad day on the bicycle and finding himself in an L.A. emergency room meets Ayers quite by accident.  If he had not taken such a blow to the head he may not have given the music he heard Ayers play any second thoughts.  This street musician plays Beethoven on a violin, even though the instrument is missing a couple of strings.  The music is quite moving.  Lopez then writes a number of stories about Ayers, enlists the help of a born-again Christian musical teacher named Graham Claydon (Tom Hollander) to refine the musician’s talents, and eventually finds Ayers an apartment which is at least suitable to the homeless man’s needs.

Certainly, there are difficulties.  Unlike most movie characters that happen to be poor, Ayers is not romanticized and exhibits symptoms of psychosis that make him less than loveable.  In a scene where Ayers demonstrates an understanding of what is going on, he nevertheless physically attacks Lopez fearing the possibility he may become permanently institutionalized if he complies with Lopez’s plans for him.  But despite a failed attempt to have Ayers perform in front of a live audience, the homeless musician does have the opportunity to play with one of the premier orchestras in the L.A. area.  And though Lopez has failed in so many personal relations during the course of his life he does in the end succeed in impressing the one person that he cares for the most – his former wife Mary (Catherine Keener) for whom the two have an off and on love-hate relationship.  (Through much of the movie Mary has been critical of Lopez believing that Lopez is taking advantage of the unfortunate Ayers in order to make a name for himself through his journalism.)

If a tad bit overdone, Foxx is credible playing a mentally ill character in this film.  One could see right away why this character would have been one so difficult to deal with.  Yet we hear him play music and we know what kind of spirit this man possesses that is masked by his illness.  Downey plays the tough acting character that masks that he has great compassion.  Downey has played the same role fairly adeptly in other movies, and he manages to give us an above average portrayal of the character in this film as well.  (Unfortunately, he’s done it better in other films.)  Yet as well as the two actors perform in the movie, we’ve seen these same characters too many times before – the troubled and misunderstood genius befriended by the loveable cynic.

We’re never quite sure why Ayers came to the state that he was in.  The flashbacks provide no evidence that the young man was ever abused while he was growing up.  In fact he seemed to be loved and supported by his family.   We learn that he was at one point sent to Julliard because his mother recognized Nathaniel’s musical genius, and we discover that he has a sister named Jennifer (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who is perfectly willing to be a caregiver for her mentally ill brother.  Circumstances seem almost too perfect for the young man to have found himself in such a tragic situation.  The movie plot also resolves itself a bit too perfectly to be altogether believable.  If this had been a better movie it would not have been as predictable as it was.  However, if it would have been a better movie it probably would not have pulled the few viewers in that it did.  An honest portrayal of a homeless man would have been too much for a mainstream audience to bear. 

The Soloist may at times border on being mawkish, but I can’t say this is an incredible fault.  It’s certainly no more sentimental than Oliver Twist which we’ve been reading for 150 years.  The movie’s greatest flaws are that the script lacks imagination by failing to convince most viewers as to why we should care more about this homeless man.  Most moviegoers that see this film will blame someone else for not doing more and it probably will not convince anyone to take it upon themselves to help any homeless person out.  This movie cannot be compared to David Lynch’s movie, The Elephant Man that at least makes the viewer feel shoddy about the way most of us treat others.  The Soloist is safe viewing for most as it is not contentious. Fortunately, it’s not a fake film like Amadeus that somehow is supposed to convince us to listen to the music of Mozart and does not seem overly self-righteous like almost any film starring Robin Williams.  This movie attempted to be popular and artsy at the same time, which is why it failed to be truly appreciated by almost anyone.  Yet maybe it’s a slightly above average movie at the same time because the movie fails to cater to such audiences.

August 29, 2010
© Robert S. Miller 2010

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