The Soloist

Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man) is a popular, award-winning columnist at the Los Angeles Times, but he’s depressed by his empty life and the changing nature of the news business that every week is sending another colleague to the unemployment line. Nothing seems worth writing about.

One day downtown not far from his office, Lopez hears a strange and beautiful sound — which turns out to be a homeless mentally ill man at the foot of a statue of Beethoven passionately playing a violin that has only two strings. The street musician is dressed wildly in sequins and shiny hats and pushes a shopping cart bulging with his life’s possessions. Although he’s been mugged 14 times, the man prefers sleeping outdoors because he thinks the shelters are dirty. He rambles about the friends he used to have at the Julliard School of Music many years ago. Lopez has discovered Nathaniel Anthony Ayres (Jamie Foxx, The Kingdom), once a brilliant young classical musician who has descended to Skid Row, thanks to the dream-sucking demons of schizophrenia.

Lopez is struck not only by the seeming tragedy of Ayres’ broken career, but by the exquisite happiness that the man still derives from his music. Ayres plays his two-string violin to the passing rush-hour traffic with all the joy of a Grammy-winning maestro. He seeks out tunnels and freeway underpasses because the acoustics of those places make his music soar. Lopez, a man who seems to have it all, realizes that he has nothing in his life that makes him as happy as music makes Ayres.

Finding a muse in Ayers, Lopez writes a series of columns about him. The city becomes fascinated with the growing friendship between the two men. One day a fully-stringed cello arrives in the mail at the newspaper. With such a valuable instrument, Lopez feels he can help Ayres turn his life around. He gives the cello to Ayres on the condition that he give up his life on the streets and agree to sleep indoors.

Ayres, having lived a pretty independent life before he met Lopez, resists efforts to become beholden to him. The voices in his head are less frightening to Ayres when he’s outside. Lopez, in many ways a typical, clueless do-gooder, doesn’t know why Ayres can’t just be forcibly confined to a hospital for two weeks, medicated, and emerge as “cured.” He has no idea of the baffling nature of schizophrenia, nor what effects such a disease can have on a person who’s had it as long as Ayres has.

Lopez, like so many hard-driving men, is used to fixing things. But Ayres doesn’t want to be “fixed.” What Ayres wants is a friend. Lopez eventually learns that he doesn’t have to fix anything to be Ayres’ friend–all he has to do is show up. He can follow the example of Ayres’ sister Jennifer (Lisagay Hamilton, Deception) who, when she finds her long-lost brother on the steps of the homeless shelter, says nothing, just gently touches his hand.

The Soloist has been ripped to pieces by some film critics who think its few defects ruin what is largely an excellent film. Part of the negative reaction comes from the fact that most people simply do not understand mental illness, especially the mentally ill homeless. They want a film story to have an ending, even if the real-life story it’s based on doesn’t have one. The harsh reality is that The Soloist is about as happy as a true tale about schizophrenia is going to get. Ayres will continue to play his music joyously, but he will always be a soloist–he’s never going to play in concert with other musicians in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

That’s why I loved this movie. The Soloist truly shows the situation of homelessness and schizophrenia in Los Angeles better than any film I’ve ever seen. When I lived in L.A., I worked for two years at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen around the corner from where this film was shot. I was like the journalist Lopez, thinking that the mere power of my desire to help would actually help do so. But I learned, quickly, all I could do was be compassionate. In the case of the soup kitchen, that meant to serve a healthy meal and never, ever assume you’d be greeted with a “thank you.”

The Soloist hits more true notes than false ones. Director Joe Wright, famous for his sweeping visuals in The Atonement, uncovers the blaring colors and bizarre scenarios that are everyday life in Skid Row. I have to forgive him for a few missteps, such as an absurd sequence with raccoons, and another of swirling colors that are supposed to represent how Ayres “sees” music. And the somewhat ridiculous changes to the true story that scripter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) came up with, such as making Lopez an unhappy divorced man with a wise ex-wife (Catherine Keener, Synecdoche, New York) instead of the happily married man he was.

Forgiving the mistakes, The Soloist emerges as a truly awesome movie. The story is told from the point of view of reporter Lopez, and Robert Downey Jr. is his usual compelling self, but the movie belongs to Jamie Foxx. His sensitive, nuanced, prickly, explosive performance will hook you into his damaged psyche and shake out of you every preconceived notion you ever had about mental illness.

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