April 23, 2009

The Soloist

Wanda sure hasn't aged well

Grade: C +

Director: Joe Wright

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, and Catherine Keener

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

The real-life relationship between Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) and the subject of an acclaimed series of his newspaper articles, a homeless, schizophrenic musician named Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), forms the foundation of The Soloist, which finally finds its way into theaters after being pushed from its original awards-season release date last December. That ominous warning sign aside, Downey’s eccentric talent and Foxx’s earnest portrayal prove an intriguing duet that keeps matters interesting in a film that is otherwise evokes Reign Over Me, The Elephant Man, and just a hint of Dogville.

Nursing a recent bicycle injury, job losses at the paper, and the inability to come up with a new idea for his regular “Points West” column, one day Lopez is drawn to L.A.’s Pershing Square by the siren song of violin music being played by Ayers under the looming glare of Beethoven’s statue. Once a promising prodigy, Ayers suffered a mental breakdown during his second year attending Julliard. Now, Ayers roams the City of Angels in sequined jackets pushing a shopping cart. Ayers sees an audience but Lopez sees a story, and so begins a relationship that eventually leads Lopez to take on a parochial role, relocating Ayers to the LAMP community shelter and trying to jumpstart his musical training. Meanwhile, Lopez enjoys acclaim as his readers – including city officials – become captivated by Ayers’ story, even though Ayers isn’t allowed to park his cart outside the newspaper’s front door.

Ayers is a pitiable sight, and while the audience is invited to view him as such, we are also nudged into giggling at his boundless collection of novelty hats and his incongruous ramblings. Indeed, the notable blemish on Downey’s otherwise fine performance is his inability to recalibrate (or just reign in) his trademark wry wit when interacting with Ayers and other homeless characters.

Like in his last film, Atonement, Joe Wright’s direction is as variable as Ayers’ mental state – at times truly virtuoso, at others unpredictable and overbearing. An exploration into schizophrenia and how to assist the mentally ill is a worth pursuit, but depicting an acute episode of Ayer’s mental disintegration while a TV shows a close-up of a crying baby is just plain dumb. During a rehearsal by the L.A. Philharmonic, the screen transforms for over three minutes into a multi-colored light show shifting to the beat of the music that made me wonder whether I’d wandered into a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Moreover, Wright suffers from the same disconnect as other European directors who have tried to tackle/sermonize about the issues of race, poverty, and class in America. How else to explain the copious, by-now de rigueur visual referencing of the Hurricane Katrina and George W. Bush? And, questions about the exploitive side of Lopez’s relationship with Ayers ring ironic when Wright ropes in hundreds of actual homeless people from Los Angeles’ Skid Row – many of them physically and/or mentally handicapped – to be extras.

When Lopez is urged to stop trying to cure Ayers and “just be his friend,” it is a plea for simplicity that could well apply to Wright, who embellishes his central narrative with discordant grace notes about the plight of the homeless, the decline of print journalism, and the best way to combat raccoon infestation. The answer is apparently coyote urine, which Lopez spills and slips on while trying to hang a bagful in his backyard. It mirrors an earlier scene when Lopez spills and slips on his own urine while taking a drug test at a blood bank. The only sensible metaphor one can draw is that Wright is subconsciously aware he is pissing away a great story.

Neil Morris

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