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Friday, May 22, 2009
Hollywood turned on its head
"The Soloist" is a film that easily could have sucked, so it's almost shocking how good it actually turned out to be. I mean, just take the premise: calloused, professional journalist, used to filing his "human interest" stories and moving on, meets a funky, fuzzy-brained homeless dude who's also a musical genius, playing Beethoven on dodgy L.A. streets and tunnels. Imagine, say, Tom Hanks in the first role and Will Smith in the second, and really, you don't even need to see the film — the jokes and odd-couple bickering and heartwarming resolution are that predictable.
But lucky for us, we have Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role, and whatever that guy does, it sure isn't ever predictable. Opposite him is Jamie Foxx, an actor who isn't afraid to push it and look downright nasty at times, if that's what the character requires, as in "Dreamgirls" or "Ray." (Compare that to Smith, who can't even turn down the charm when he's being a jerk, as in "Hancock"). So what could have been a by-the-numbers Hollywood feelgood flick instead turns out to be something much more real and revealing.
You realize this the first time the camera trails down Skid Row near the Lamp Community Center, a gated homeless shelter with a halo of dealers, hustlers, shopping-cart people, and basic street crazies thronging around it — the air of impending danger, the abject sadness of disposed lives, the squalor of rough living: This is pure downtown America. I would bet good money that most of the people being filmed here, and in the shelter, aren't extras but actual street people. The disturbed woman who speaks of being off her meds — because they stop the voices in her head, and sometimes the voices are the only comfort she has — sure didn't sound like she was acting.
You also sense the reality when the L.A. Times reporter, Steve Lopez (Downey), snaps at his homeless buddy, Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx). Ayers is balking at living in an apartment, which Lopez has gone out of his way to arrange for him. "I have a million other things I could be doing right now," barks Lopez. "I have a job. I'm a professional person." Downey looks like a dick when he delivers this line, short- tempered and, in a way, arrogant. But damned if he doesn't make you realize you'd probably snap the same way in that situation, and similarly regret it later. Altruism usually expects gratitude.
"The Soloist," unlike many American films on mental illness, shows clearly how terribly hard it is to figure out exactly how to help someone who's coming unhinged. As someone who once had the opportunity to help such a person and blew it, each frame of this film cut like a knife. It's clear there's real experience in this script, and it's no surprise to learn it's based on an autobiographical book by the actual Steve Lopez.
Director Joe Wright ("Atonement") sets the tone for the film right off the bat. First, we see columnist Lopez nearly get killed when he's struck by a car; this is the sort of thing — and the film doesn't need to point it out — that makes you stop and think about what you're doing with your life. Wright also throws in a background newsroom hum of TV broadcasts of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; again, without saying anything, he makes clear that this will be a movie about the indifference that has infected society and what it takes to confront that in oneself.
When Lopez meets Ayers, a raggedy, rambling street person playing a battered violin near a statue of Beethoven, his instincts sense a story, and sure enough he gets one: Ayers used to study classical music at the prestigious Juilliard School, and this drop from child prodigy to Skid Row bum is quite the tear-jerker. As in "Shine," there seems a clear connection between the mental discipline needed to play classical music's most demanding works and the idea that an already fragile mind can snap under that pressure.
Lopez sees only wasted talent, though, and — with the help of some generous readers — tries to get Ayers off the street, though this is much harder than one would expect, due to Ayers' confused mental state. Juxtaposed with scenes with his ex-wife and editor (an especially tart Catherine Keener), we see that Lopez is dealing with responsibility for another, something he ran from in the past (with good reason).
In "The Soloist," we see that sometimes even the best intentions aren't enough. Unlike "Shine," there is no miraculous end where Ayers ends up back as a gigging musician. (David Helfgott, too, was never as "cured" as the film made him out to be.) Some damage isn't so easily repaired. But "The Soloist" offers the hard-earned conclusion that maybe it's not about fixing things; maybe it's enough to just be there for someone.