There are a lot of very interesting, sometimes brilliant little observations stuck in the framework of "The Soloist", director Joe Wright's ("Atonement") newest film. What these observations did for me was add seemingly innocuous details to the story; details that helped make the story seem real and the characters become even more believable. What all of this did was to help create an incredibly moving film. "The Soloist" is almost a great film but two small missteps keep it from earning five stars.
Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) writes the respected Points West column for the Los Angeles Times. One morning, early, while out riding his mountain bike, he gets in an accident when he tries to avoid hitting a raccoon. He scrapes up his face but soon returns to work where his editor and ex-wife (Catherine Keener) is pressuring him to take one of the column ideas she has given him. But nothing is striking his fancy, so he puts them off. While eating lunch in a park in Downtown LA, Steve hears classical music waft through the air. He follows the sound and encounters a homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) playing a violin with only two strings. Steve starts to talk to Nathaniel and quickly learns the man adores Beethoven and he once attended Julliard, leading Steve to think he may have his next column. As he gets to know more about Nathaniel, he calls Julliard and finds out a few details, calls Nathaniel's sister, Steve becomes more fascinated and also wants to help the homeless musician. A reader touched by one of Steve's columns donates a beautiful cello she can no longer play and Steve insists Nathaniel play the instrument at a place called LAMP, a homeless shelter in the middle of skid row. As their relationship grows, Steve continues to write about his new friend and their lives become entwined more and more and more.
Written by Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich") and based on the book by Steve Lopez, Joe Wright has created a moving, believable portrait of the road the relationship between these two men takes. It isn't a fairy tale friendship because there are some natural twists and turns. Downey Jr. and Foxx also appear to be at the top of their game and everything comes together to create one of the best films I have seen in a while.
Wright creates a tapestry of sight and sound containing so many different elements all in an attempt to make this story, set in Los Angeles only a few years ago, come to life. As his camera sweeps across a maze of freeways, moving us to the next scene, we hear the cacophony of sounds and noise, people's voices as they talk on cell phones, cars honking and more. Not only is this very real, but it also helps to put us in Nathaniel's head, to give us a feeling of what he must hear every minute of every day, what must drive him nuts. It also helps us realize why he appreciates music so much. The music helps to drown out all of these other noises, to help him be more calm and peaceful.
While this is one of the most significant examples of what Wright does, he also gives us funny glimpses into other things that help to provide texture to the rest of the story. One of the column ideas Steve receives from his editor is to investigate a local clinic. After an intern takes some blood, she announces that she also needs a urine sample. Wright sweeps his camera across the top of a row of stalls in the men's room, complete with a guy sitting on a toilet taking a 'break'. Then we see Steve, who is struggling with his sample cup when he gets a cell phone call. We often see cameras sweep across scenes like this, but we rarely see some anonymous guy using the facilities. It may sound a little strange, but because we do see this, I believed in the film a lot more. Wright is signaling he is trying to make this story real and valid.
Jamie Foxx plays Nathaniel Ayers, a man who once had a promising career as a concert cellist within his grasp. Trying to learn as much as possible, he attends Julliard but drops out in his second year; the voices start to take over and he has trouble making anything out. He ends up in Los Angeles, on the streets, playing his music on a violin with only two strings. Steve meets him many years later and we have to wonder what happened in the almost three decades between the two events.
When I first started to see the trailers for this film, it seemed interesting but there was a big question mark surrounding Jamie Foxx. Foxx is a good actor and he won an Oscar for his portrayal of Ray Charles, but playing someone with a mental or physical handicap can quickly become problematic. Michael Caine once said that he never plays an alcoholic as an "alcoholic" with greatly slurred speech, running into walls, etc. It's so much more convincing if you make it subtle. When actors play people with physical or mental handicaps, they frequently can't get a grasp on how to play the role with any subtlety. Too often, the role turns into a comical stereotype. When an actor is able to create a performance that seems real, it is often recognized with awards. Why? Because I suspect it is difficult to portray someone who can't function like we expect someone to function and to make that real to us. Foxx does this with his portrayal of Ayers.
When Lopez first meets Ayers, Ayers seems nervous and a string of words issue from his mouth with little or no connection. But Lopez listens and realizes he is saying more than he initially thinks, he comprehends more than Lopez imagines. Ayers is very softly spoken and just seems confused. That and his strange piece meal outfits help to paint a very complete picture of Ayers.
As their relationship grows, Steve begins to try to help Nathaniel. First, he brings the cello that was donated by a reader. He finds Ayers in his favorite tunnel and reveals the gift but doesn't want Nathaniel to get killed over it, so he wants Ayers to play it at LAMP, a local homeless shelter. You can practically see the saliva appear at the corner of Nathaniel's mouth. He wants to play this beautiful instrument and he wants to create some of his favorite music. Steve relents and lets him play it for a few moments. When Nathaniel begins to play, the music washes over him, over Steve and over us, drowning out the cacophony of sounds around them, providing them with a safe cocoon of music. This is a terrific moment and helps to illustrate why Nathaniel is so passionate about his music.
Is Robert Downey Jr. talented, gifted or blessed? A combination of all three? I think he has always had talent, but his personal problems have overshadowed all of this for so many years. Now that he has his personal life under control, he is able to create some incredibly interesting and memorable performances. In last year's "Iron Man", he created a portrait of industrialist Tony Stark that seemed to play on some of our perceived notions of Downey Jr.'s, real life and character. It was a brilliant portrayal of a super hero and helped to create a franchise.
Now, he follows that role with his portrayal of Steve Lopez, a columnist who works for the Los Angeles Times. Lopez is dealing with many things, he works with his ex-wife who is also his supervisor, and their son has just left to go to college, he has still not unpacked in his new house, he lives in Los Angeles, which really can wear a person down. He is trying to find something that excites him, provides him with some passion. When he meets Nathaniel, he is intrigued. As he learns more and more about him, he decides he has a new passion, a new subject for his columns.
Lopez is a tricky character to play in that he is initially intrigued by Ayers and wants to help him, but he also realizes he has a subject worthy of many columns. As Lopez's columns about Nathaniel begin to take on a life of their own, Lopez realizes he has to stay in touch with Ayers, to continue to be a part of his life, in order to continue to get material. This is both a good and bad thing. Downey Jr. portrays Lopez as both caring and slightly desperate to stay in touch with Ayers. Like most people, we assume Nathaniel needs help, he wants help and we, the people without mental or physical problems, want to provide him with that help. We first get a glimpse of this when Lopez brings the cello to him and insists he play it only at LAMP. Nathaniel knows what LAMP is and doesn't want to go there (when we get a glimpse of this for the first time, we can see why) but Steve doesn't want him mugged and killed over the instrument. Lopez waits for Nathaniel at LAMP and is delighted when he eventually shows up. This only encourages Steve to try to make further changes in the homeless man's life. They are a part of each other's lives and he wants to help his new friend. He arranges for them to go to a concert at Disney Hall, he arranges for this, he arranges for that.
But Steve doesn't fully understand Nathaniel. Partly, he can't and partly he is too wrapped up in trying to change Ayers' life that he can't see that Nathaniel doesn't want or isn't ready for all of these changes. Downey Jr. portrays this in a fairly subtle way and it really helps us understand how passionate he is about helping this man and why.
Joe Wright helps both of these performances immeasurably by providing us with visuals that help us understand the characters better. Even if Lopez is a bit self-absorbed, we know that he is being weighed down by so many factors. As he races out of the office, he runs by a conference room window and we see his ex-wife and editor glumly watching as one of her columnists is laid off. Lopez doesn't interact with this proceeding, but this is Wright's way of showing us that Lopez is seeing this moment, even if he isn't really seeing it. It weighs down on him. It affects him. It is an interesting, believable and natural performance.
There have been a couple of recent examples of film using voice over narration in the wrong way. The very wrong way. And I have rallied against them. There is a running narrative from Lopez (Downey Jr.) as he reads bits of his column, in progress, trying new sentences out, changing things, rewriting. In "The Soloist", it works because it helps give us insight into how Lopez's mind works, his job, his writing, and his life. And these same bits of narration also help to focus our attention, much like Lopez is trying to focus his narrative. It is a nice way to add texture to the story.
Wright also shoots the film in a way that doesn't really sugarcoat anything. When Lopez and Ayers travel to LAMP, in the middle of Skid Row, it is as though our nightmares have come to life. When Lopez is honored for his columns on Ayers life and the plight of the homeless, the awards banquet is a black tie affair in a fancy hotel and women wearing expensive jewelry. Everything in "The Soloist" just works.
Well, almost everything.
Surprisingly, there are two jokes about urine in a relatively short period of time. The first one is amusing but when the second one surfaces so soon after the first, you begin to wonder if this film will be very different than you anticipate. I'm all for some good potty humor, but in this film it is misplaced. Later, as Steve gets more and more involved in Nathaniel's life, he enlists the aid of a cellist who plays for the LA Philharmonic. Graham Claydon (Tom Hollander) agrees to give lessons to Nathaniel and they meet. Initially, Graham seems just slightly pompous, but as we get to know more about him, we learn he is actually extremely pompous and the type of personality who will do nothing but make Nathaniel more agitated. This character, which may very well be based on a real person, is not necessary to the story and only seems to set narrative pieces in motion that Steve has already unleashed.
I was extremely moved by "The Soloist". The director and his stars manage to recreate a very real world and a very real relationship, giving jus insight into both and more importantly, insight into what each of the characters are feeling, thinking and wondering.