Sunday, April 26, 2009
After months in mysterious limbo, Joe Wright’s latest opus, “The Soloist,” finally hits theaters four months after it could win the awards for which it was clearly designed. So, the story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. must wade out into the dangerous waters of spring cinema, the final dumping of pictures with dubious prospects before the summer rolls around to start blowing things up. After watching the film, I now understand the delay.
The story, of course, is based on Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez’s attempts to rehabilitate a former Julliard undergraduate whom he finds playing in a park in Los Angeles. Unlike other panhandlers, Nathaniel plays not for change but simply for the music. Lopez, desperate for a story, decides to write a column on the man, and soon he’s got an ongoing hit. Robert Downey Jr. plays Lopez with a fine mixture of selfish egoism and wracked emotion, giving us a man who genuinely cares for Nathaniel and wants to help but also doesn’t mind the fan mail that comes his way.
Lopez has a hell of an uphill struggle: Nathaniel, a schizophrenic, speaks in hyperspeed sentences that leap from Beethoven to God to Lopez himself and then really jump off the diving board. The he only thing he can focus on is music, and when he plays the world melts away. When Lopez’s columns begin to circulate, the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic invites Ayers to a performance, where the screen suddenly cuts to bright, colored lights, suggesting Nathaniel has synesthesia, a condition that allows people to “see” music.
Jamie Foxx complements Downey’s straight man perfectly; rather than “play up” Ayers’ mental illness, he gives a rare believable performance of a mentally challenged person. In every scene his eyes dart back and forth, as if ensuring he could make a run for it at any moment. When he snaps he’s truly frightening, but you can’t help but love the guy when he picks up an instrument and a bow. And even though a number of his lines are clearly played for easy laughs, Foxx generally steers clear of exploiting his character. If Foxx was just in it for the Oscar, he at least gave us a terrific performance to earn it.
So if the film hinges entirely on Downey and Foxx, who are both excellent, what’s the problem? Well, as per usual with a Joe Wright film, the fault lies behind the lens. Wright, a technically gifted director, has yet to figure out how to tastefully apply his techniques to the subjects he tackles. Technical flair can certainly spice up even the most Oscar-baiting of dramas, but you have to make it work with the material; it’s the difference, say, between Paul Thomas Anderson in “There Will Be Blood” and Paul Thomas Anderson in “Magnolia.”
To his credit, this is the first film where Wright puts his skill to good use, what with his attempts to visualize what really goes on in Nathaniel’s mind. He jump cuts when Ayers begins to hallucinate, filling the speakers with white noise and sinister whisperings of mocking voices. But, like Ayers’ thought process, the film lacks any focus: is it a commentary on the importance of friendship? On how he can’t change people and how we define others without truly seeing them? How the endless possibilities of music? I don’t know, and neither, I suspect, does the writer. It turns what had been a promising feature into a meandering, jumbled mess with a cheaply sentimental ending that undermines the sensitivity and maturity that preceded it. Heck, Wright can’t even settle on a point of view: it’s Lopez’s story, but he jumps in Ayers’ head so many times I didn’t have a frame of reference.
The typical “true story” exaggerations likewise do more harm than good: Wright depicts L.A.’s terrible homeless problem by creating a hobo jungle that looks like the personification of every Tom Waits song ever written rolled into one. A useless subplot involving Lopez’s ex-wife (he never divorced) wastes our time and Catherine Keener’s.
Normally, a lack of narrative focus signals that a film has failed, but “The Soloist” gets so much right that I just can’t bring myself to dismiss it. Foxx and Downey put in some of their best work, and many moments of the film truly inspire. Nevertheless, inconsistencies and a scattershot second half force me to give “The Soloist” merely a tepid recommendation.