Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Film Review | The Soloist

Minor Key

by Thomas Delapa

Among other variations on a theme, The Soloist plays a mournful ode for the American newspaper in the post-print era. A few years ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez plucked a violin-playing, schizophrenic homeless man off the streets and turned him into a local celebrity of sorts. But don’t stop the presses for director Joe Wright’s discordant adaptation, which hits few high notes.

In his first film since the Oscar-nominated Atonement, Wright struggles to find the proper tone to translate Lopez’s front-page columns that first discovered Nathaniel Ayers back in 2005. As everyman-journalist Lopez, Robert Downey Jr. reprises his dithering, semi-manic performance mode that’s become as familiar as Beethoven’s Fifth.

In Susannah Grant’s screenplay, the solitary, divorced Lopez is nearly as much of a “soloist” as his pathetic discovery, played by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, whom Lopez finds accompanied by a derelict shopping cart beneath a downtown statue of Ludwig van. Once a Juilliard student, Ayers now only plays for pigeons, his dark refrain of schizophrenia soothed only by his transporting passion for music.

What might have been a dramatic duet between the two leads is instead conducted as alternating asides, led by Ayers’ flights of rambling paranoia. During Foxx’s Rain Man-style riffs, Downey can only take five and wait--probably tapping his foot in dismay out of camera range.

Wright strikes a better chord during the claustrophobically subjective flashbacks to Ayers’ brighter past, first as child prodigy on bass in Cleveland and then as the clouds gather while a student at New York City’s prestigious Juilliard School in the 1970s. As Ayers grows up poor (seemingly without friends except for his mother and sister), a babel of threatening voices in his head grow stronger, dragging him to an abyss of mental illness. While Ayers plays his instrument amid the impersonal, car-created cacophony of L.A., you can’t escape feeling that his music isn’t just a refuge, but the only sane response to an unbalanced city.

The other melody at work in The Soloist is equally somber, and that’s Wright’s Dantean picture of the city's skid row. Perched on the edge of downtown, it’s a hellacious landscape of the homeless, mad, huddled and drug-addled, mostly black, where the American Dream has gone to curl up and die.
As living proof of the power of the press, Lopez’s columns become a lightning rod, exposing a civic disgrace and causing the city to allocate millions of dollar in funds into the blight. Loyal readers of Lopez also respond to his human-interest story, one donating a vintage cello for Nathaniel’s use.

As oppressively gritty as the movie is, Wright is saddled with a crusading, committed Hollywood-accented hero with ink coursing through his veins. Composed in bold type, Downey’s Lopez is as idealistic and passionate as any Frank Capra crusader from back in the days when newspapers really did have all the news that was fit to print. The tinny--and fictitious--role of Lopez’s editor and ex-wife (Catherine Keener) should have been blue-penciled before production started.

Despite Wright’s grand, near-operatic ambitions, the soaring interludes are rare. After all Lopez’s noble efforts to help Ayers, there’s more than a little counterpoint telling him (and us) that maybe people like Nathaniel are largely beyond therapy. That’s not the five-star finale that Hollywood might want, even if it does resound with the truth.


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