If a lone horn sounds in an LA traffic jam, wonders Kimberly Gadette, will anyone notice? Or care? Tuning in to The Soloist, where two men struggle to resonate.
One is a musical prodigy. The other, a well-loved LA Times columnist. Music and words, words and music. Could this be the start of some splashy musical about La-La-Land? Not when the prodigy is a paranoid schizophrenic, one of the 90,000 of LA's homeless. Not when the columnist is simply searching for a story to meet his next deadline. But something happens on the way to the soup kitchen.
The writer (Robert Downey Jr's Steve Lopez) discovers that the guy playing the two-stringed violin at the foot of Beethoven's statue (Jamie Foxx's Nathaniel Ayers) isn't just another vagrant. He's a brilliant musician who once attended Julliard before mental illness destroyed his promising career. Lopez writes one column about him, and then another, ultimately going to great lengths to get Ayers off the streets and back into the concert halls.
There's much to love about this film, particularly thanks to director Joe Wright's ability to delve deep into Ayers' mind. We see what Ayers feels as he hears a live orchestra play for the first time in decades, his emotions metamorphosing into kaleidoscopic colors splashing across the screen. This film may well contain one of the best cinematic depictions of schizophrenia ever accomplished: the torturing voices, the claustrophobia, the fear, the frustration, the rage.
Just as Wright conveyed the multiplicity of emotion at the Dunkirk beachhead in Atonement (combining freakish carnival with glorious seascape, soldiers drunk or dead, victorious or defeated), he conducts his version of downtown LA with a maestro's baton. Using legions of LA's homeless as extras, Wright gives us his take on this tale of two cities. Filthy makeshift cots lie at the foot of the gleaming stainless steel panels of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall. Sleek BMWs zoom through tunnels trafficked by beggars hauling shopping carts that are precariously piled with their worldly goods. When Ayers first puts bow to strings on his new cello, Wright employs a 100-foot Strada crane to take us from Ayer's euphoric face, up through the tunnel's vented ceilings, to the streets, to the skies, until we find ourselves floating overhead, looking down on the iconic freeway cloverleaf that is LA. It is shot in one fluid motion, accompanied by music that can break your heart.
Yet there is a gloss to this plot that promises too much. In the trailer, Downey's protagonist says, "We take care of each other … we look after each other." Untrue. Mentally unsound Ayers may inspire Lopez, but he'd never be the one to call in case of an emergency. These sentimentalized claims are pure Hollywood, as if Lopez and Ayers are best buds who've always got each other's backs. It results in denigrating the very nature of the film.
Unfortunately, writer Susannah Grant gives Lopez' character short shrift. While filmmakers refer to the fact that he's disheartened about his career at the film's opening, we don't see it. The Lopez we meet is caring, smart, fearless, curious about the people he writes about. The Lopez along the film's journey is just more of that guy, more caring, more fearless. When the biggest change is cosmetic – the bruises from his biking accident finally heal – that's a problem. If supremely accomplished Downey can't show us a character's dramatic arc, then it either ended up on the editing room floor, or there wasn't one to begin with.
However, the script takes a provocative nod toward the role of the assumed saint: ie, once you try to save someone and he/she doesn't fall in line, are you allowed to feel betrayed? Angry? Annoyed?
Starring as the one who won't fall in line, Foxx' Ayers is a revelation: first, in his musical exactitude (Foxx, a classical pianist, trained for months in order to convincingly portray a virtuoso cellist); and second, in his depiction of schizophrenia: the speech patterns, the intelligence intermittently breaking through, the sorrow after a violent episode, all the while giving us the sense of a man-child muffled behind an intangible fog. Unlike Dustin Hoffman's mentally challenged Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, this performance explores the character's humanity on a much deeper level.
Wright brought in many of his collaborators from Atonement – and once again, the cinematography, editing, costume design and soaring musical score by Dario Marianelli are all first rate.
If you're expecting a tidy film with nice subplots and a great payoff, then The Soloist may disappoint. But for its hard look at schizophrenia, the homeless and committed performances by two of today's best actors, this opus deserves a standing ovation.
Rating on a scale of 5 Beethoven sonatas: 4
Release date: US: April 24 2009; UK: Sept. 11, 2009
Directed by: Joe Wright
Screenplay by: Susannah Grant
Based on the book by: Steve Lopez
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, Tom Hollander, Lisa Gay Hamilton
Rating: US = PG13
Running time: 109 minutes