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The Soloist

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A Los Angeles Times columnist (Steve Lopez by byline) finding a story in a homeless schizophrenic classical musician, and making something of it, is quite different from a team of filmmakers finding the same story predigested. What they chiefly make of it is a couple of outsized performances by Robert Downey, Jr., and Jamie Foxx. Director Joe Wright devises a nice subjective effect when the cellist’s solo part is joined in his mind’s ear by a full orchestra, drowning out the passing traffic in a freeway tunnel. But the accompanying birds soaring over the city are a bit much. As are the Jupiter-landing psychedelic lights accompanying a rehearsal of the L.A. Philharmonic. A sprinkling of flashbacks to How He Got Here adds little but filler. With Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Stephen Root. (2009) — Duncan Shepherd

Rated PG-13 | 1 hour, 49 minutes
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5

“The Soloist” is not a feel good movie, although the trailers portray it as such. I thought it might be a pleasant little story, along the lines of “August Rush”. Not so. It’s a true story about an L.A. Times reporter/columnist, Steve Lopez, who by way of an accident meets a homeless musician, Nathaniel Ayers, who is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. I expected the plot to progress down a particular path, starting with the reporter meeting the man; then the reporter helping him; then the reporter, in turn, being spiritually helped by the homeless man; and ultimately ending with the homeless man being ok. That doesn’t happen. Robert Downey, Jr., who plays the reporter, does in fact attempt to help the homeless cello player, acted by Jamie Foxx, but he is thwarted by the laws of this country that state that you cannot force mentally ill people, even those desperately in need of help, to get treatment without their consent. The “Catch-22” of this situation is that sometimes with extreme mental illness, the illness itself renders an individual unable to give consent. The movie was touching, and sometimes very painful to watch, especially the brutal views of life on skid row in downtown Los Angeles. It scared me to think that some of our brethren are just one unemployment check away from being relegated to a place like that. But there were important elements in this movie that seemed to have been left out. We know at the beginning of the film that Mr. Ayers, who by the time Lopez finds him in his mid fifties, is mentally ill, but the movie doesn’t exactly explain how he got that way. There’s a scene of Ayers as a young student, inside his off campus apartment, having a break down, but the scene seems to suggest that his being “inside” is the trigger that brought on his illness. Also, you never find out what happened to Ayers during the years between this unfortunate episode (which occurred in New York), and his being discovered by Lopez “outside” on the streets of Los Angeles. Did anybody at the school ever realize that Ayers had fled, rather than having simply dropped out? Did anyone in Ayer’s family try to locate him? Did he ever receive any kind of medical treatment? Those unanswered questions left me scratching my head. The ending was also not what I expected. Some people watching this movie will think that the movie has a happy ending, because Lopez gives Mr. Ayers the gift of friendship. But we find that due to the laws in this country, that no matter how hard Lopez tries to help Ayers to get medical treatment, which he clearly needs, his friendship is the only “treatment” allowed. Sometimes that’s not enough.

May 4, 2009

The only real bright spot from this movie is the job that Jamie Foxx does portraying Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. He will be a likely candidate for best actor come Oscar time. The story is real; based on the novel by LA Times writer Steve Lopez. The film felt more like real life than a movie. The good thing about that is that it felt like real life. The bad thing is also that it felt like real life. There wasn’t anything exciting about this story. Ayers is one of several hundred thousand homeless people that live on our streets. Unfortunately, a lot of these people are there because nobody will help them. Ayers, like many other homeless, has a mental illness and has a hard time distinguishing real from imaginary. Lopez did the best he could to help the guys get back on his feet and put him in the right direction but in the end all he ended up getting was a friend. If you take anything from this film, recognize that the people living on the street are just that—people. They each have their own story for how they got there. They weren’t always homeless and deserve respect just like anybody else. Don’t be afraid to say hello to one next time you are walking down the streets of downtown. You never know when you may make a new friend.

April 27, 2009

While Duncan neatly covered the psychedelic aspects of the film, the protagonist's near-neurotic flirtation with an endless stream of personal shortcomings was noteworthy.

Perhaps the Soloist should have received a secondary rating of MC, as a caution for those in mid-life crisis!

May 1, 2009

Remember Steven Spielberg’s silver-screen rendition of “The Color Purple”? What flabbergasted and disappointed me after reading and loving the book was how he portrayed the cabin and setting in general like something from a Ralph Lauren ad. Typical sugarcoating, Hollywood style. Refreshingly, Joe “Atonement” Wright presents a much richer and raw rendition of a not-so-pretty reality in “The Soloist”. Using actual patients rather than Hollywood extras and a set devoid of glamour, he paints an authentic picture of life in poverty. Robert Downey Jr. delivers an Oscar worthy performance as Steve Lopez, real-life L.A. Times journalist who befriends and writes about the brilliant but mentally disturbed cellist, Nathaniel Ayers, convincingly portrayed by Jaimie Foxx. Wright also introduces some of the complexities posed by the mentally unstable homeless: Why do some homeless actually choose/prefer to live on the streets even when a safer alternative (i.e. an apartment) is available? Should we as a society employ manipulative tactics to ensure that they are medicated? These are a few of the implied questions with no pat right or wrong answers. If you want to see a simplistic, feel-good movie, don’t go to see “The Soloist”; it just might leave you feeling a bit unsettled. But if you want to see a thought-provoking, realistic portrayal of life on the streets, and the complexities of a misunderstood prodigy, “The Soloist” is a must-see movie.

May 25, 2009

This film surprised me in that it was actually pretty good (despite looking like an Oscar-ready movie dumped in the middle of summer, left to be forgotten). The performance by Robert Downey Jr. was wonderful, and Jamie Foxx managed to make his performance as a mentally-unwell homeless man believable.

July 9, 2009

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