Monday, January 30, 2012

Music Soothes The Savage Breast In The Soloist

The Good: Amazing acting, Great direction, Decent story, Interesting character development
The Bad: Difficult to watch
The Basics: When Steve Lopez hears Nathaniel Ayers playing music, he becomes intrigued by the street-dwelling man's predicament and works to change his life.

As I consider my review of The Soloist, I find myself wondering if Steve Lopez, the reporter upon whom The Soloist is based, is sitting trolling the internet on the eve of its theatrical release, reading reviews. On the off chance that he is, I shall flatter myself for a moment with the notion that he has stumbled upon this one and take the opportunity to say "thank you." Thank you, Steve Lopez, for seeing the world and trying to make a difference in it. Thank you for writing about your story and being successful enough at it to create a template for a film that might raise awareness about real social problems as well as tell a life story of one of the millions of extraordinary unsung humans on this planet.

The Soloist is based upon Steve Lopez's book, adapted for screen by Susannah Grant, and directed by Joe Wright. The film is an obvious contender for award season next year as it deals with both mental health issues and tells an interesting character-driven story. Actually, The Soloist is a decent love story with two people who do not have a romantic relationship and Wright captures both the love Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. has for music and the love Lopez has for humanity as he reconnects with it. The Soloist is remarkably direct, largely satisfying and it is one of the best motion pictures of 2009.

Steve Lopez is out cycling one night and by dawn, he finds himself falling face first off his cycle onto the pavement and damaging himself. As a writer for the Los Angeles Times, he writes about it in his column and as he mopes back to functionality, he finds himself one day in a park listening to music. The music is being played by Nathaniel Ayers, a man who is down on his luck and playing a violin that is down to two strings. But Lopez is fascinated by this man, especially when in his strange ramble, he mentions attending Juliard. A quick factcheck on Lopez's part determines that Ayers attended Juliard, but never graduated.

Intrigued by what knocked Ayers off course, Lopez befriends the homeless man and is able to provide him - through one of his readers - with a cello and contacts who will aid Ayers. As the Los Angeles Times downsizes, Lopez explores the world of homeless Los Angeles and he attempts to assist Ayers. Soon, though, it becomes apparent to Lopez that Ayers is in greater need than he is qualified to help and when he attempts to intervene in Nathanial's life, he realizes he might be in over his head.

Nathaniel Ayers may or may not be a paranoid schizophrenic; The Soloist leaves that undefined. What The Soloist does quite well is tell a story and keep the viewer engaged. Indeed, I have not been this engaged in a musically-based drama since The Red Violin (reviewed here!). In that film, the drama lay in the travels of a single instrument, in The Soloist, the action is almost entirely explored through quiet conversations and softly played pieces involving two men who connect through one's ability to play music and another man's growing reconnection with the important aspects of life and love.

What remains important throughout the film is not the music so much as the mystery of Nathaniel Ayers. Ayers enters the film as a clearly disturbed mind and how and why he ended up that way when all bets indicated he would be the next best thing in the classical music world is an intriguing puzzle. Clues to Ayers's history and illness are doled out whenever the film slows down in the form of interviews between Lopez and Ayers's sister, Jennifer. As well, flashbacks introduce the more cognizant moments in Nathanial's past where he is able to piece together significant moments with his mother, sister, and early experiences as Juliard. In these, the viewer is given the strongest impression and clues that Ayers suffers from schizophrenia.

In these scenes, the film takes a turn toward the disturbing and troubling. Watching Ayers battle with voices only he is able to hear is frightening to watch and his lack of understanding in what is happening to him makes the scenes heartbreaking. What viewers might want to see is an explanation, a series of events that lead Ayers to a mental collapse, but we are afforded no such catharsis; there are no incidents, no turning points, no negotiations that failed. At one point in the flashbacks, the world of music fails to keep the voices at bay.

This failure to connect, where timelines do not explain anything more than what was to offer comparison to what is now, is made watchable by the character journey of Steve Lopez. Lopez, recently divorced from his wife - one of the few apparent liberties the film makes with reality according to interviews with Lopez - begins to become passionate about life again through the experiences he has with Nathaniel and the LAMP Community, a homeless ghetto in Los Angeles. As Lopez discovers the world of poverty and mental illness that is cramping the streets of Los Angeles, he awakens to the idea that helping Nathaniel and the denizens of the community, he will better himself in a way that is not simply self-serving. Watching him go from a disconnected jerk to a man who truly loves someone is amazing.

Part of this is done through simple movie magic. Director Joe Wright takes a cue from Across The Universe (reviewed here!) and Fantasia (reviewed here!) and plays with the idea of making music a visual experience. Therefore, there a moments in The Soloist when Lopez simply listens to Ayers play and he envisions the music. The first time this happens, it appears to be a pointless visual bit involving birds, but when one understands the connection between the music and the imagery it quickly becomes apparent what Wright is doing.

The Soloist is also incredibly strong on the acting front. Jamie Foxx leads a cast that includes Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, and Lisa Gay Hamilton. Foxx is predictably brilliant in the role of Ayers and he continues the strong trend he has for picking work that allows him to explore his full range as an actor. In this he is amazing in the speed of his dialogue and in the intensity of his body language. Credit ought to be given to Justin Martin, who plays the younger incarnations of Ayers for holding his own and keeping the feel of the character alive.

But the surprise for most people will be Robert Downey Jr. In this film, Downey exhibits all of the talent that he insinuates in other roles where he is simply well cast and stuck into a niche. In this, Downey Jr. is not simply a mellow, slightly understated, sarcastic man who delivers great wisdom. As Lopez, Robert Downey Jr. is a man on an emotional journey and the way his eyes change from dead and bored to engaged as the film progresses is a testament to his acting.

Not quite a perfect film, The Soloist lacks a full measure of catharsis, but is close enough for me to give it a five-stars. The pacing is a little off at a few moments, but outside that, it is the dramatic powerhouse one hopes is remembered around award time.

For other works with Catherine Keener, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Where The Wild Things Are


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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