© 2009 Ray Wong
For once, British director Joe Wright ditched his period pieces and gave us a contemporary story about a journalist and a homeless person in urban Los Angeles, based on a nonfiction best-seller.
Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is a staff writer-columnist at the Los Angeles Times. In searching for a story, he comes in contact with a mentally unstable homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), who plays the violin beautifully. Nathaniel tells Lopez he studied the cello at Juilliard Arts in the 70s. When his background checks out, Lopez's got his story.
He seems to have forgotten about the guy until a reader asks Lopez to give Nathaniel her cello. Suddenly, the homeless man becomes Lopez's responsibility. He tries to help Nathaniel, who suffers from schizophrenia, but the man refuses to take medications or get help to stay off the street. Lopez succeeds in coercing Nathaniel to enroll in the LAMP, a community center for the homeless. His desire to "fix" Nathaniel meets with his own conflict about how far he should go, and when Nathaniel's schizophrenia turns violent, Lopez considers walking away for good.
Jamie Foxx (The Kingdom) does great work here as the schizophrenic musical prodigy. His characterization includes speaking a hundred words per minute, eccentric behaviors and body twitches, but he always seems intelligent and articulate and educated. Nathaniel also seems kind, warm and hurt. Foxx's portrayal is sympathetic and touching, without going overboard with the acting, reminding us of Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. The biggest part of the story, however, rests on Robert Downey Jr.'s (Tropic Thunder) shoulders. Downey has a more difficult role: a morally ambiguous man who is caught off guard by his own conscience and kindness. Downey seems a bit off in the beginning, probably trying to find his way to distinguish this journalist from the one he played in Zodiac. But eventually he finds his stride and gives one of his best performances.
The supporting cast includes Catherine Keener (Hamlet 2) as Lopez's ex-wife and editor. Her role is too peripheral to make a real impact, but in many ways she serves as Lopez's Jiminy Cricket and keeps the plot moving. Tom Hollander (Valkyrie) also has a small role as a musician, Graham Claydon, who tries to help Nathaniel return to his music. The film also casts real-life homeless people in some of the film's most fascinating, almost documentary-like moments.
Adapted from his own bestseller, journalist Steve Lopez cowrote the screenplay with Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) with a clear aim of not over-sensationalize and dramatize the story. They choose to tell the story straightforwardly, mostly from Lopez's perspective. The screenplay is surprisingly down-to-earth, downplaying the emotional roller-coaster that would otherwise have made the film a heartstring tugger. It's not to say the script is emotionally detached and distant. But the writers try their best not to be sappy and preachy. It's mostly low-key, without the expected crowd-pleasing, soaring climax and a Cinderella finish. In fact, the story stays true to real-life and offers no quick fix or real resolutions.
It's not to say the screenplay is perfect. While Nathaniel's story is intriguing, the core of the story is really about Lopez's own growth as a human being. It's basically a coming-of-age story for Steve Lopez, and at times the story feels somewhat one-sided. They try to counterbalance it with a few flashbacks of Nathaniel's past, but they come off as forced and ineffective, especially since they break the point of view (which is mostly Lopez's). Nathaniel's backstories could be better served through Lopez's own eyes and ears as he interviews Nathaniel's relatives and former friends.
Still, director Joe Wright (Atonement) manages to put it all together. It's not an easy story to tell, with no clear dramatic arc or a definitive ending, the story is more reflective and contemplative. Wright has a great eye as a director, and he's a superb stylist, as witnessed in his previous acclaimed works. His lush style, however, sometimes seem at odds with the contemporary setting and the gritty reality. Los Angeles, for example, looks at once a utopia and a dystopia. Perhaps his stylistic choices are meant to demonstrate the dichotomy and contradiction of our societies, but they don't always work as they're designed to.
The music, however, is extraordinary. This is, after all, a movie about music, and the score mixes Dario Marianelli's affecting original material with Beethoven's magnificent classics as well as contemporary pieces that frame our times. At one point, as Beethoven's Symphony #3 is being played in the background, the audience is treated to a Fantasia-esque sequence that not only helps us understand the power of music, but also understand what is going on inside Nathaniel's confused head. Also superb is Wright's decision to include real homeless people from the infamous Skid Row in the cast. As one "character" recounts her day and her philosophies, we can't help but listen and marvel as the reality of what these people deal with every day stares us in the face.
The Soloist is a masterfully crafted human story about humanity and humility, and manages to bring forth a discussion that most Americans don't want to talk about or even acknowledge. It is thought-provoking without being melodramatic about it. It's a unique story about two men, each of whom feels like he has to fly solo in life. Don't we all feel that way at least sometimes?
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander
Director: Joe Wright
Writers: Susannah Grant, Steve Lopez (based on Lopez's non-fiction book)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.8 out of 10