Friday, April 24, 2009

The Soloist: Solid duet

The Soloist (2009) • View trailer for The Soloist
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity, drug use and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.24.09
Buy DVD: The Soloist • Buy Blu-Ray: The Soloist [Blu-ray]

A high school history professor used weekly current events pop quizzes to encourage his students to read a daily newspaper, a ploy so successful, in my case, that the Los Angeles Times became a faithful and much-enjoyed addiction that continues to this day.

The hard news aside, I've always been drawn to columnists, and therefore noticed immediately when Steve Lopez joined the staff in May 2001, having transitioned to the Times after four years with Time Inc., where his work appeared in Time, Sports Illustrated, Life and Entertainment Weekly.
Happily "parked" in a traffic tunnel, for the setting's open expanse and purity
of sound, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx, left) tentatively tries the cello that
L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) has brought him.

More than any other columnist I had followed before, or have discovered since, Lopez exemplifies an old-style journalistic ombudsman: a sharp-eyed observer of both human nature and civic affairs who rails with intelligence, perception and wit about everything from street potholes and other neighborhood frustrations, to big-ticket issues such as mayoral indifference and the overly cozy inner-circle workings of the Los Angeles City Council.

Above all else, Lopez loathes hypocrisy, and is quick to lash out at elected officials behaving badly; of late, he's been death on L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's deputy mayor of transportation, Jaime de la Vega  who, in his position, should set a good example  because the man drives a Hummer.

Sometimes, though, Lopez just writes about people. I always enjoy his occasional visits to a downtown barber shop, usually as election time rolls around, for the colorful tapestry of opinion that the columnist obtains from the working-class folks who both staff and patronize this business.

In 2005, Lopez began a series of columns about a bedraggled but somehow quite dignified homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers, who poured his soul into a violin having only two strings. Somehow, Lopez realized, Nathaniel found inner calm through music, despite a chatterbox, stream-of-consciousness instability that no doubt had led to the man's life on the streets.

The columns led to mountains of mail and an ongoing relationship between the two men; Lopez had, with his graceful and sympathetic approach, put a face to mental illness. Readers responded; a publisher responded; Hollywood responded. The book  The Soloist  came first, which Lopez expanded from his columns; then he suddenly found himself in the enviable position of being portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in a deeply moving film directed by Joe Wright (Atonement).

Ayers, in turn, is played by Jamie Foxx: a mesmerizing, heartbreaking performance guaranteed to be remembered come Academy Award time.

Serendipity can be fascinating. Nobody could have imagined, at the Fourth Estate's hour of greatest need, that we'd get not just one, but two films set in the world of major metropolitan newspapers, both with screenplays that demonstrate the great power  and crucial importance  of the written word. Between this film and State of Play, Hollywood's certainly doing its part to remind us that journalists are as important as doctors and teachers.

For the most part, screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, Charlotte's Web) sticks very close to the truth as Lopez reported it, and Wright dutifully captures the hustle and bustle of daily life at the Times. The newsroom atmosphere is made more tense by the ongoing layoffs that already had become a fact of life in '05, and would only get worse.

We see the headlines of Lopez's "Points West" columns; we hear Downey, in voice-over, compose and narrate passages throughout the film. Both because of Wright's approach and Downey's thoroughly persuasive performance, we get a genuine sense not only of how a journalist thinks, but of how a story builds itself  or sometimes doesn't  and how a column comes together.

We also get a taste of Lopez's funnier side, as he recounts his efforts  true story  to battle the raccoons that keep tearing up his lawn, a campaign that ultimately involves the use of dried coyote urine, and becomes something of a running gag.

The film's one blatant nod to Hollywood fabrication was its decision to transform the happily married Lopez into a divorcé whose ex, Mary Weston (Catherine Keener), happens to be his editor. Grant hit upon this fictitious device to further the on-screen Lopez's isolation as a guy on his own, cut off from this intimate level of human contact in a way that would, in terms of cinematic narrative, make him more of a soulmate to Ayers.

It also allows for some feisty tension between Lopez and Weston, while giving Keener a juicy supporting role.

Extracting clues from Nathaniel's scattershot monologue during their first meeting, Lopez discovers that the homeless man attended Juilliard as a cello student; the details of the journey from that lofty institution, to the streets of Los Angeles' Skid Row, unfold slowly, via Wright's fondness for flashbacks.

An elderly reader moved by the first published column donates her cello  Nathaniel has gravitated to the violin only because a cello won't fit on his shopping cart  and Lopez craftily arranges for it to be stored at Skid Row's Lamp Community, in an effort to get Ayers off the streets for at least part of each day.

But as Lamp Community head David Carter (Nelsan Ellis, also a strong supporting player) warns, even good intentions can't work miracles.

Lopez, as the story progresses, becomes obsessed by his desire to help and even "fix" Nathaniel. But some people don't see themselves as needing to be helped, even if social decorum would seem to suggest otherwise. This film's path to wisdom becomes a deeply moving journey, with an fadeout that may prove unexpected.

General dissatisfaction with the story's outcome  because Lopez's relationship with Ayers remains a fragile, transitional bond to this day, this film (of necessity) doesn't so much conclude as stop abruptly  may explain why The Soloist saw its release delayed from 2008 to early spring 2009.

But I suspect test-screening audiences also blinked askance at Wright's brave but questionable attempt to convey the powerful, transformational "otherness" of music, when Lopez arranges for Nathaniel to sit in during a rehearsal of the L.A. Philharmonic. For several minutes, the screen becomes a swirl of nothing more than colorful blobs and computer images  very much like the "star gate" sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey  set to the Third Symphony by Nathaniel's beloved Beethoven.

I couldn't help wondering, as well, if this interlude were suggested by (or an homage to) Fantasia, given the Disney Concert Hall setting. If so, it's the wrong time and the wrong place.

Earlier, as Lopez watches Nathaniel play his new cello, the film takes literal flight along with the music, as we adopt a swooping, bird's-eye view of various parts of Los Angeles ... an affectation, given the degree to which Lopez has been shown to enjoy the songs of Neil Diamond, that evokes unfortunate echoes of the film version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Both directorial flourishes reflect poor judgment, because both yank us unmercifully out of the drama. I understand Wright's motives, but his execution leaves much to be desired ... and does noticeable damage to his film.

Wright's artistic touch is far better used during one late-night interlude, as Lopez desperately searches Skid Row after a distraught Nathaniel charges into the darkness. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey first follows the reporter on the ground, as he walks warily among menacing street hustlers, and then the camera gently lifts  but not far  to give an overhead view of the squalid cardboard "rooms" that shelter so many down-and-out people.

It's a sobering, painfully raw depiction of the last stop for those with no hope.

Grant deserves considerable credit for the sensitivity with which Ayers' affliction is handled, as do Downey and Foxx, who keep their interaction on a level that is respectful but still permits gentle humor. It's a difficult tightrope act: Despite the acclaim with which it was greeted at the time, Dustin Hoffman's Oscar-winning performance in 1988's Rain Man was too frequently played for laughs that sometimes came at the expense of his character.

Although Wright allows us the ability to smile and even chuckle at Nathaniel, our response feels more like amused amazement  in other words, a sympathetic reaction  that never fails to acknowledge the intelligent man beneath the wildly colorful outfits he sports on the streets. Then, too, Foxx is careful to prevent his performance from sliding into blatant, heart-tugging bathos.

In an Internet era when the term "friend" has become devalued to the point of becoming meaningless, this story depicts the true, actual, crucial tenet of genuine friendship: the need to accept each other at face value.

Steve Lopez learned much from Nathaniel Ayers. We can learn much from both of them.

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