The Soloist movie review: hard music

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Excellent! It’s another of those delightful magical-negro movies, in which Will Smith’s mystical golf caddy helps an overprivileged white man learn the true meaning of Christmas! Hoorah!

Oh? This isn’t one of those wonderful feel-good flicks that lets us all breathe a sigh of relief that we’re not racist anymore because, look! we’re capable of telling a story about a black man who’s wise and noble? But the trailer… Isn’t that Jamie Foxx sharing his wisdom and nobility — a wisdom and nobility achieved through that ultimate of Zen-like existences, homelessness on the streets of a wealthy American city — with Robert Downey Jr., surely playing his usual lovable fuckup who just needs the devoted attention of a mystical golf caddy to come to appreciate the blessings of his life, minimal as they are when compared to those of a wise, noble, homeless black man? No?

Okay, so then The Soloist is surely about music and genius and the fine line between insanity and prodigy-ness and it’s all Jamie Foxx doing rabid Tom Hulce-as-Mozart giggling and probably Robert Downey Jr. going all Salieri on him and taking advantage of his vulnerability as a street person who doesn’t take his meds and it will make us all very sad and leave us shaking our heads at the tragedy of how geniuses are crazy and whew! aren’t you glad you’re not any kind of prodigy? No?

I mean, that would have been okay. Because whichever Hollywood cliché we’d gotten, it still would have been all painfully raw Robert Downey Jr. (Tropic Thunder, Iron Man) as the overprivileged white guy and the who’da-thunk-it? powerful Jamie Foxx (The Kingdom, Miami Vice) as the mystical golf caddy. And they would have made it okay — it would have been totally endurable, even if it would have made us realize that absent either of them, this would have been a Hallmark Channel would-be weepie.

C’mon! This ain’t Resurrecting the Champ meets August Rush, the feel-good movie of the spring? How can that be? It sure seems like it’s gonna be that, as Downey’s Los Angeles Times columnist, Steve Lopez, ever on the search for a good story, meets cute with Foxx’s schizophrenic street person Nathaniel Ayers as the latter is playing, and playing surprisingly well, a two-stringed violin in a public park. Nathaniel lets slip that he attended Julliard, and then Steve is on him like a leech, cuz this is such a great story. You can practically hear the gears clicking over in Steve’s head, how he’ll be able to find odd wonder in the music ringing through the concrete of the highway underpasses Nathaniel haunts, how he’ll be able to rail at Us All for letting such talent get away. Because Steve is a thoroughly modern cynic, cracking wise with his editor/ex-wife (Catherine Keener [Synecdoche, New York, Hamlet 2], who can crack wise in return with equal panache), and so he’s surely so ready for the strange beauty and unexpected insight of a Nathaniel to open his eyes to… something-or-other. Right?

But then director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Charlotte’s Web, Catch and Release) — who based her script on the newspaper columns by the real-life journo Steve Lopez, now collected in book form — sneak up on us just as we’re getting ready to be reassured that homelessness is ennobling and schizophrenia is enriching, and they do something that is fantastically aggressive for a studio film. The Soloist turns into a keening elegy for us, for our society, for how we have utterly failed the most helpless of our own, the indigents who haunt our urban landscapes because of mental illness or addiction or simply an inability or unwillingness to adhere to societal norms. And it does that not in the comforting Band-Aid way that we might have imagined Steve Lopez wanted to achieve with his columns about Nathanial Ayers, but by reconsidering the world around us in a way that most movies take for granted. And if you imagined that the film was going to be easy and sentimental and fairy-tale, well… perhaps it was the intent of Wright and Grant all along to lull us with apparent promises of comfortableness before springing their acidity on us.

Because the uneasy friendship between Steve and Nathaniel — as the former writes column after column about the musician, to great acclaim and massive readership — becomes a bitter howl of frustration, and bereft of anything wise or noble or inspiring, except in the darkest kind of way, as Steve comes to see that there’s probably nothing he can do to help Nathaniel, beyond simply being an undemanding friend to him. Nathaniel is an adult, he’s not a danger to himself or anyone else: he cannot be forced to take medication, or to live inside. So how do you help people who don’t want help? Could it be that it’s just as condescending to ask whether some people need “help” as it would be to compel them to take powerful mind-altering drugs they don’t want to take?

It’s a tough, challenging, daring question for a thoughtful, compassionate movie such as this one to ask, because it risks making itself sound heartless, as if it’s suggesting that we shouldn’t do everything we can for our fellow humans. It isn’t, of course: one sequence in particular, of the nightly routine of the skid-row-esque, open-air community center for these intractable homeless, illustrates with aching empathy the humanity of everyone there, from the street people feeding stray cats to the volunteers feeding the street people. Instead The Soloist is asking whether we’re approaching the problem from the right angle. It does that obliquely, not via impassioned speechifying but in the most astonishingly cinematic way. Director Wright looks at Los Angeles as a landscape of order and chaos at war with each other while the natural and the artificial coexist contentedly: pigeons soar happily over 24-lane cloverleafs and acres of parking lots and the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River but the Frank Gehry explosion of Disney Hall sits like an alien spaceship in downtown. The mental landscapes of his characters clash till they are the same: Nathaniel is dogged by imaginary voices that taunt him or comfort him, but Steve hears voices, too — on his reporter’s tape recorder, on answering machines — and he talks to himself just as Nathaniel does.

It’s not that Wright is presuming anything so simplistic as that we’d be swayed into believing that there is not a huge difference between this one man who talks to himself, and this other man who does the same. It’s a tougher question he’s asking: What’s truly “artificial” and what’s truly “natural”? What’s truly “broken”? Do we need a wider understanding of this question before we can even begin to talk about how to “fix” something that may not be broken, or at least not broken in the way we think it is?

The hell of it, Wright seems to suggest, is this: Maybe there’s no answer to that question. Maybe we’re doing the best we can, and we’re still failing.

So, you know: not the feel-good movie of the spring. Just a powerfully upsetting one.

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Wed, Apr 22, 2009 9:44pm

Thank you so much for writing this very powerful review for The Soloist. I have been waiting for this movie to come out since reading the book some time ago. You seemed to have captured the essence of this movie that has escaped some critics reviews. At least as far as I know it from reading the book and reading many interviews with Steve Lopez. I will watch it Friday and can hardly wait. Thank you.

Thu, Apr 23, 2009 9:55am

I’m glad to see this. I was worried Downey might actually be turning into the actor he parodied in tropic thunder.

A Guy
A Guy
Sun, Apr 26, 2009 1:32pm

The thing that bugs me about these movies is the implicit assumption that, because of this homeless guy’s gift (musical or otherwise), he “really” doesn’t belong on skid row (he’s good, he’s special). We should triple our efforts to help him.

But that same guy without the “gift” rarely merits this kind of attention and is not given near the same benefit of the doubt as to his character and human worth.

For me, the hero in this movie is the guy that runs the homeless shelter, not the reporter.

Sun, Apr 26, 2009 3:46pm

I think the movie is criticizing that attitude, that some people less deserve homelessness than others. I think the movie makes it perfectly plain that no one deserves to be cast off by society.

The Downey character may start the movie with that attitude, but he certainly doesn’t end the movie with it.