The Soloist (Review)

Best-selling book gets fair treatment on the big screen

Apr 22, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez’s The Soloist, the best-seller about how he befriended and tried to help a talented but mentally ill homeless man who loves to play classical music on the streets, isn’t an easy book to film.

It has no cathartic, feel-good ending with an easy moral. Unlike the Beethoven symphonies so important to its score, it doesn’t ultimately “soar.” The homeless musician, an African-American named Nathaniel Ayers who was a child prodigy until schizophrenia hit, refuses medication that would obviously make him better and is given to frightening “meltdowns” of anger.

The book ends with optimism about the future for Ayers because of his love for music and his willingness to move to non-profit housing, but no neat, tidy resolution. And it leaves readers deeply troubled about how this country has come to tolerate the existence of large colonies of mentally ill homeless people in its urban centers. It is also an introspective book — Lopez learns as much about himself as Ayers, including facing his own worries about the decline of newspaper journalism as a career.

The film, directed by Atonement’s Joe Wright and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, surprisingly gets a fair portion of it right. It is certainly clear-eyed — steely-eyed, even — about not sentimentalizing or trivializing its story. It uses actual residents of Los Angeles’ notorious Skid Row as a supporting cast, and their presence is a vivid, defiant reminder of their humanity even when society wants to forget.

The two principal actors also are strong. Foxx, his hair parted in the middle and his clothing and headgear looking more like exotic plumage than a wardrobe, exudes a disarming quietude for much of the movie. His character’s love for classical music is expressed through a kind of stream-of-consciousness murmuring and pleading that are poetic and compelling in such an offhanded way that it’s easy to miss.

It also makes his “meltdowns” — including one where he becomes violent toward Lopez — simultaneously violent and heartrending. You can see the demons at play. But you can also see the angels, especially in a scene where Ayers listens so rapturously to the Los Angeles Philharmonic play Beethoven’s “Eroica” that his mind — and the film — slips into synesthesia, the state of experiencing music as colors. Shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Downey’s Lopez has a little harder time finding his center. The film does him no favors early on — he’s partly a hard-edged, cynical reporter (who even smokes a cigarette!) living alone and partly an oaf who keeps having accidents with urine.

But Downey slips free of the stereotypes as Lopez starts to be impressed by the depth of Ayers’ pure and deep love for music. At that point his portrayal becomes fresh, straightforward and, while no-nonsense, also unpretentiously humane in caring about Ayers. (One might want to compare this with a documentary called You’re Gonna Miss Me, the story of how a brother tries to help Roky Erickson, a mentally troubled middle-aged Rock musician, get better.)

But this is a dramatic movie, and some of the choices it makes are poor. Wright and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) have chosen to tell Ayers’ back-story — growing up poor but to a loving mother in Cleveland; gaining acceptance to Juilliard as a budding cellist but then succumbing to voices in his head — through florid flashbacks.

Foxx, who is powerfully touching as the near-middle-aged Ayers of the present day, is simply too old and too big for the college scenes. It would have been far better for the back-story to come out via having Lopez (Downey), through the process of being a diligent reporter, find and interview people who knew Ayers.

The earlier scenes, featuring Justin Martin as the young Nathaniel, allow the young British director to succumb to the same problem he had with Atonement, staging a “beautiful” tableau of a horrifying scene. In this case, a car aflame slowly rolls down a nighttime Cleveland street as a scared Nathaniel watches.

Is this surrealism — externalizing the fears of an already troubled mind? — or is it meant to imply the urban chaos of Nathaniel’s environment sowed the seeds of his illness? Whatever, Wright needs to think more about what such scenes mean before staging them.

There is also the matter of the film’s sound mix, which will be controversial. Perhaps underscoring the theme of how “voices” can bedevil a troubled person but music can bring peace, the film sometimes turns conversation into background, in the style of Robert Altman.

Judging from the size of the sound crew listed in the credits, it’s apparently a thought-through decision. Some will long for more clarity, but to me it’s defensible artistically. In this world there is no clarity. Just sometimes, fortunately, people trying to help. Grade: B

Opens April 24. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.