The Soloist

By Vineberg, Steve | The Christian Century, June 2, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Soloist


Vineberg, Steve, The Christian Century


The Soloist.

Directed by Joe Wright.

Starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.

The Soloist is a rarity--a triumph-of-the-spirit movie in which the hero's triumph is ambiguous. It's a movie about accepting small successes and living within your limits.

The character primed to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles is Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a man who has schizophrenia and lives on the streets of Los Angeles. In his youth Ayers was a promising Juilliard cellist, and his musical gifts extend to a number of instruments he's taken up casually. The film's chief protagonist, however, is Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), the Los Angeles Times columnist who writes a series of stories about Nathaniel, then tries to set him up in his own apartment and restore him to a life of playing music. Susannah Grant's screenplay adapts the book that Lopez--a real person--fashioned out of his columns.

Lopez's role is a fascinating variation on the mentor figure who usually appears in this kind of picture, and Downey gives a fascinating, largely interior performance. Lopez is drawn to help Nathaniel, but he resists Nathaniel's impulse to see him as his savior. Working out of some personal history the script never reveals, he's leery of disappointing anyone who puts him on a pedestal. So he fights himself throughout the story. Lopez's struggles with Nathaniel and with his own role in Nathaniel's life are the primary drama of the film.

The problem is that Grant has underwritten Lopez's story, including the scenes that center on his relationship with his editor and ex-wife, Mary (Catherine Keener). With an actor less inventive than Downey the movie would fall apart. Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) lingers on life among the homeless, some of whom take temporary refuge at Lamp Community Center, where Lopez arranges to house the cello that one of his readers donates to Nathaniel.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Wright and his cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, bring a sense of wonder to the scenes that depict L.A.'s homeless people. The scenes sometimes recall the ambling, improvised feel of 1970s films like Paul Mazursky's Harry and Tonto, in which Art Carney plays an uprooted senior citizen who takes an unplanned road trip across America. They also brings to mind Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King, with Robin Williams as a street-bound schizophrenic and Jeff Bridges as his reluctant companion--though Wright's tone mixes in more melancholy with the comedy, and his style is more majestic and less loony than Gilliam's. …

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