Saturday, 25 September 2010
The sight of a homeless person can inspire many reactions. One is immediate sympathy and maybe class guilt, coupled with the jangling of spare change. The other is reprehension, with the assumption that these people are coke-heads and crack babies born of the gutter, out to steal the workingman's well earned pennies. The Soloist is out to beat down the latter assumption, telling the story of a mentally ill man who had his hard work as a musician at Julliard hindered by Paranoid Schizophrenia. He wants no alcohol or hard drugs, just to play his music and for his life to work itself out. This portrayal is commendable. It's the presentation that can occasionally get a bit dodgy.
Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.,) not the character mentioned on the first paragraph, is a writer for the Los Angeles times, whose career is struggling. One day, biking and trying to come up with a article, Steve takes a topple off his bike onto the pavement, giving him halfhearted inspiration. His disgruntled boss, Curt Reynolds (Stephen Root,) complains that Lopez's injury is the first thing the public has responded to in weeks. Yes, most days, people can't be bothered to read the paper, and TV is replacing the written word fast, leaving Curt, Steve, and Steve's divorced but rather awkwardly co-working ex-wife Mary (Catherine Keener) out of luck.
The man Steve meets and befriends, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. (and he won't let you forget that that is his name,) has given up on luck. He grew up in a loving family during a hard time and turned out to be sort of an isolated genius on the violin. His mother ecstatic at his big chance, she sends him off to Julliard with the best wishes, not looking for a moment over the question of his sanity. Unable to express his true talent and consumed by internal voices, he finds himself on the streets, which is particually hard as he is an almost obsessive-compulsive neat freak who dodges traffic to throw away cigarettes.
Steve is puzzled more than moved at their first meeting, but he finds it intriguing that someone allegedly from Julliard could turn out on the streets with his personal belongings in a shopping cart. He has now turned to a cello with only two strings, which he never the less plays magnificently, and Steve decides to write a newspaper article about his life. This turns out to be somewhat beneficial for Nathaniel, as an old arthritis-ridden woman donates him her full stringed cello, but to protect the instrument from looters, Steve moves him to Lamp, a mass homeless shelter that's even grubbier and more run-down than the corner he's learned to call home.
The performances are markedly good from the two leads-Jamie Foxx radiates desperation as Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. (the compulsive spelling of his name and other's is very Babbitt-esque.) Steve Lopez, smart-alek and sharp, isn't the traditional bleeding heart, and that's all well and good. The problem (and one thing that weakens the film) is the persistent feeling that the side characters could be doing more and the actors being more. The way the plot is developed, the characterizations are very ambient, as well as Stephen Root (who actually showcased his talents to better effect as the ill-fated Eddie Gauthier in a couple of episodes of True Blood.)
His role consists of complaining about his job and getting drunk, recreating the workplace discontent of Milton Waddams in Mike Judge's Office Space without the pathological mental disturbance. Catherine Keener has a questionable role as Steve's ex-wife who, motivated by the growingly genuine friendship between he and Nathaniel, hooks back up with him without much segue. I kept waiting for Root or Keener to be developed beyond a half-hearted afterthought, but that didn't happen.
Nathaniel's story is quite involving, but The Soloist lays it on thick by uncarefully administering a social message about the homeless, ending with an overwrought, wordless scene panning over people in the shelter. The disturbing statistic near the end credits probably does just fine. Anyway, the film should administer a light touch so that the audience doesn't stop to think it's being manipulated. Sme issues (like Nathaniel's reliance on Steve) are looked at but not handled entirely satisfactorily (Rated PG-13.)