April 24, 2009
The Soloist (PG-13)
Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx play unlikely friends in The Soloist, a very neat little story.
I know, it sounds like faint praise. But after watching it, “What a neat story” was my first thought. Perhaps because this based-on-a-true-story started as a newspaper column, the movie has a long magazine article feel to it. There’s no great conspiracy uncovered, no dramatic change to the world — just interesting characters and an engrossing study of them.
Character #1: Steve Lopez (Downey), a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He is a good writer but — at least as the movie shows it — a bit lacking in confidence elsewhere in life. His editor is also his ex-wife, Mary (Catherine Keener, who is like a ray of light here). He is, as we come to find out, prepared to let people down.
Character #2: Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx), a homeless man who Lopez meets under a statue of Beethoven. Ayers is playing violin and doing surprisingly well considering it only has two strings. In their first meeting, Ayers mentions off-handedly to Lopez that he was at Juilliard. Lopez, in need of just this kind of story, looks into it, confirms that Ayers was once a student at one of the world’s most prestigious music schools and then starts to piece together Ayers’ life and how he ended up on the streets (where he still plays the classical music he learned in New York).
After this first article, Lopez receives a cello from a reader to give to Ayers. The instrument becomes the first link in an uneasy but growing friendship between Lopez and Ayers. Lopez appreciates the access to Ayers and other homeless people, many of whom, like Ayers, are mentally ill, living in downtown Los Angeles, and Ayers is occasionally lucid and able to make and deeply appreciate beautiful music.
Occasionally. Other times he is lost in the fear and delusion of schizophrenia. One of the things this movie does best is to show the frustration that is part of dealing with a friend or loved one with a severe mental illness. It is not an illness-is-cured, and-they-all-lived-happily-after kind of disease. And, thankfully, the movie doesn’t turn it into one. Nor does it go out of its way to Say Something about all mental illnesses or what society should do about people with mental illnesses (other than to make clear that what we are doing isn’t enough or always particularly useful).
Instead, it gives us these characters, their situations and a bit of their background, much like what you’d get in a really well-written Sunday newspaper long feature. More than the conspiracy-uncovering in State of Play, this kind of precision- and skill-requiring feature writing is what truly sets newspapers apart from the instant headlines that the Internet offers. These stories aren’t something a blogger can dash off in the morning; these take investigation and constant work and spending time with people. A good story of government malfeasance or political wrong-doing is just as fun and important (and equally difficult to report correctly), but the everyday amazing stories don’t cry out to be covered in the same way. You have to dig, and once you find them you have to make sure that sentiment and the desire for a good story don’t run ahead of the facts. It’s an easy balance to get wrong and this movie reminds you how great it can be when it gets it right.
Into this solid story go equally solid performances by Foxx and Downey (not, perhaps, the absolute best from either man but the kind of solid why-you-hire-them performance that you’d expect). The third main character in this movie is music. And that performance is equally solid. The movie does a good job using the music to give us insight into Foxx’s character. In one scene in particular, Ayers doesn’t just hear but seems to feel the music while listening to a symphony perform. For us, it’s translated into bursts of color that force you to focus almost solely on what you’re hearing. It’s a neat little effect that the movie uses just enough to put us in the moment. B
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language. Directed by Joe Wright and written by Susannah Grant (from a book by Steve Lopez), The Soloist is an hour and 45 minutes long and is distributed by DreamWorks. It opens in wide release on Friday, April 24.