Eugene Weekly : Movies : 5.7.09


Tone Deaf
Musical journey strikes the wrong note
by Jason Blair

THE SOLOIST: Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Susannah Grant, based on the book by Steve Lopez. Cinematography, Seamus McGarvey. Music, Dario Marianelli. Starring Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr and Catherine Keener. DreamWorks Pictures, 2009. R. 117 minutes.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx in The Soloist

After years of reporting their own demise, newspapers are back in movies again. Films like State of Play and Zodiac argue convincingly for the relevance of daily journalism, in particular the type of obsessive reporter who probes the story at great personal risk. To this minor trend we can add The Soloist, the story of real-life L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, who, while not exactly Bob Woodward — bikepath etiquette was a recent Lopez subject — struck paydirt when he met a classical musician on skid row. The musician, Nathaniel Ayers, inspired a memorable series of newspaper columns, which Lopez naturally developed into a book. That a film would eventually follow isn’t as preordained as it might sound, however, given how thoroughly Lopez tries to understand Ayers’ mind and how little solace he finds there. And so it happens that the film, adapted by Susannah Grant (Erin Brokovich) and directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), is minor theatrical catastrophe, a film that is both emotionally neglectful and visually reckless.

Lopez, played by Robert Downey Jr., opens The Soloist with a tumble during an early morning bike ride, as if riding reconnaissance for story ideas in L.A. is a hazardous pursuit. More stinging than his shredded face, however, is the “No new messages” alert awaiting  Lopez on his answering machine: Within the overwrought world of The Soloist, the absence of voicemail is a kind of verdict on his existence, a reflection of the creeping meaningless of his life as well as that of his employer, the Times. After a fitful, skittish transition to the newsroom, where obligatory references to impending layoffs and the “good old days” are made, Lopez encounters Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) beneath a statue of Beethoven in a park. Ayers plays a two-stringed violin with the youthful authority of a Julliard student. When it turns out Ayers was a Julliard student, Lopez seizes his story. Sure enough, his columns captivate a city long thought to be too calloused for human interest, let alone interested in a homeless man with a profound mental illness. Lopez becomes a minor celebrity, hobnobbing with the mayor. Ayers remains an untreated schizophrenic. Guess who’s the most miserable?

Redemption can’t be far off for Lopez. It’s been lurking since his bike accident. To get there, The Soloist breeds two lofty themes, each of them malnourished by the sketchy nature of the script. One is how words in general (but newspapers in particular) connect and inspire us to take chances, both with ourselves and each other. The other is how sometimes the people we try to help may not want or even need it. Or worse, how helping others is often a means of avoiding self-help. As Lopez, Downey Jr. gives a balanced performance as a man caught between assisting Ayers and turning him into material. Downey Jr. remains the calm center of The Soloist. Much has been made of Foxx’s performance, which underplays Ayers’ schizophrenia. I sensed the effort but not the character; it’s so low profile it’s indistinct. Catherine Keener, who’s fast becoming as dependable, if not as ubiquitous, as Julianne Moore a few years ago, is wonderful as Lopez’s boss and ex-wife. But around these performances the story spins willy-nilly, straining at connections without ever making any. Director Wright’s flight-of-fancy transitions — yes, there’s actually a pigeon cam — don’t help, jarring more than inspiring. It’s as if after two period dramas, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, Wright’s craving for something modern gets the better of him, an ironic outcome given that Beethoven’s symphonies are the freshest elements in The Soloist.