Monday, May 04, 2009

'The Soloist'


We rarely see a movie in the theater (a Mother's Day outing to see Crash a few years ago may have been the last time), but we decided that the rainy weather was perfect for a family movie night. The Soloist certainly fit the mood of the weather.

My daughter's reading the book now and I'm familiar with the story from reading Steve Lopez' columns in the LA Times when he originally wrote of the story of the mentally ill musician in 2005. Lopez had been one of my favorite writers at the Inky, so I followed his columns when he moved to LA., including his awarding winning series of stories about Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic homeless man who was a gifted musician and had attended Juilliard. These stories comprise the book and the plot of the movie.

The headline of the Philly Daily News review says it all, ‘The Soloist’ not a feel-good film. As Gary Thompson explains:

Did I mention it's also intentionally atonal, this dirge? "The Soloist" is a tough movie built around the difficult friendship between Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (ex of the Inky) and the homeless man whose life he chronicles.

It begins when Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) strikes up a conversation with a street musician named Ayers (Jamie Foxx), who's ranting and plucking on two strings of a busted violin.

The man babbles, but Lopez gets his name, hears the word "Julliard," and does a little digging. He unearths (and reports, in a series of columns) the compelling biography of a boy genius whose promise was cut short by madness, a biography that also tells the story of urban homelessness. (As does this movie, with rare emotional restraint.)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx gave excellent portrayals of the two men, Lopez and Ayers, as they met and eventually connected, despite their different backgrounds and Ayers mental problems. Lopez, in his own way, had the more difficult task, since he had to overcome the desire to help Ayers "fix" his life by trying to find a way for Ayers to obtain medical assistance. He also had to confront the fact that, as a writer, he connected with others through observation and maintained his distance. As he became involved with Ayers, that solo personality would prevent him from reaching the soloist Ayers. With his severe mental illness, Ayers was unable to change his behavior in any meaningful way. For him, music was the only way that he was able to soothe the voices in his head and sometimes let in the real world. Once Lopez was able to accept that reality, they were able to form a bond of sorts.

I tend to agree with Rebecca Murray's Review:

As Lopez gets to know Ayers - as much as anyone can know a stranger with severe mental problems who's not being treated for his disease - he discovers an incredible musician still exists inside the man who 99.9% of the population would go out of their way to avoid eye contact with. What started as the idea for one column turns into a life-changing relationship from which both men benefit, though in vastly different ways.

Is proclaiming Robert Downey Jr one of the best actors of his generation pushing it? Check out The Soloist and tell me Downey Jr isn't at the top of his game as a newspaper reporter who uses Ayers to get a story before finding himself unintentionally becoming the most stable friend the tortured Ayers had during his years on the streets. It's mostly through Downey Jr's eyes that we follow the story, listening in while he dictates what he's learned dealing with Ayers into his tape recorder before writing up his articles for the LA Times. Downey Jr thoroughly and absolutely becomes this veteran journalist who gets too close to his subject and finds himself caught up in Ayers' life to point where an actual friendship has formed.

Jamie Foxx delivers yet another poignant performance as he tackles what just had to be the most difficult role of his career. Whether speaking at a manic pace as Ayers' mind trips out on him or altering everything about his being when Ayers shows moments of near lucidity, Foxx never, ever turns his portrayal of Ayers into a caricature of a mentally unbalanced man.

* * * *

Wright's made an honest, unflinching film that's uncomfortable to watch at times, a pure joy to behold at others, and overall as faithful to its source material as possible while still being cinematically entertaining.

Most of the reviews of the movie were mixed, but the family all liked the movie, despite it's overall depressing theme. I'm glad that I saw the movie before I read the book, to eliminate the comparisons between the two. Both my daughter and the woman sitting behind me kept pointing out differences in the movie. (The Los Angeles Times review notes a few of the variances).

But it was my husband who was most affected, because he worked with the mentally ill homeless about 20 years ago and it brought back a wave of memories for him. In fact, he coincidentally had a meeting nearby this week, so he happened to stop at the agency he had worked. An old colleague is now running the Center. He even ran into an old client, who remembered him. The man, still homeless after all these years, was excited because he thought my husband was returning to the Center.

All in all, we thought the movie was a realistic portrayal of mental illness & homelessness that certainly won't leave you feeling uplifted. Yet, it was well-done & managed to be moving nonetheless.

1 comment:

Marie said...

Great review. I'm looking forward to seeing this when it comes out on video. Like you I hardly ever go to the theaters anymore.