The Soloist (2009)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on May 1, 2009 @ tonymacklin.net.

Just because The Soloist is about a homeless person doesn't mean it should have pedestrian direction. But it does -- pedestrian and clodhopping.

When it was announced that Steve Lopez's book The Soloist was going to be made into a movie with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., I was exhilarated. Little did I know how poorly Joe Wright would direct.

Fortunately The Soloist has two actors -- Foxx and Downey -- who don't allow the movie to be the rancid syrup Wright threatens to make it. But Wright and screenwriter Susannah Grant hamper them by robbing the work of its naturalness and authenticity.

The two artistic actors have to fight contrivance at every turn. They are admirable in doing so.

The Soloist is based on the book that Steve Lopez (Downey), columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote about his encounter and developing relationship with homeless musician Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Foxx).

Ayres is a gifted but mentally incapacitated musician who loves Beethoven and plays classical music on the streets and in the tunnels of Los Angeles.

Lopez meets Ayres in Pershing Square and begins to write about him in his column. When he first meets him, Ayres is playing a violin with only two strings. Lopez gets involved in trying to lift Ayres out of his psychological confinement. It's a difficult but edifying challenge.

What is infuriating and frustrating about The Soloist is that the two main actors are so much better than the mediocre movie they're in. It's like playing Beethoven in an elevator. Their director pours catsup over the filet mignon of their talent.

You have three artists -- Beethoven, Foxx, and Downey -- and they're dumped into a movie directed by a toneless klutz. Almost every decision and change director Wright and screenwriter Grant make is ill-conceived.

In the book Lopez begins to learn and appreciate classical music because of Nathaniel. In the movie Wright takes one allusion to Neil Diamond and runs with it. Nathaniel had a picture of Diamond on his wall because he thought it was Lopez.

So Wright has Lopez at home at night listening to Neil Diamond's "Mr. Bojangles." When Lopez leaves Nathaniel and goes to a bar, what is playing on the jukebox? Neil Diamond singing, "Forever in Blue Jeans."

What a coincidence! This isn't eclecticism -- it's contrivance. And it's dumbing down.

Yeah, and Beethoven wants season tickets to NASCAR.

Screenwriter Grant cuts almost anything that smacks of intelligence in the book. She cuts Nathaniel's long quote from Hamlet. She cuts Nathaniel's clever line, "I'm playing in the tunnel, where Don Quixote and Colonel Sanders have been involved in a bloody battle." She cuts that he sings a line from Italian opera. Grant also totally cuts the profane aspect of Nathaniel.

She depends on contrivance that she never would have allowed when she wrote Erin Brockovich (2000). Grant makes Nathaniel's teacher a religious zealot.

She changes the donor who sends a cello to Nathaniel. In reality the actual donor was the CEO of the Pearl River Piano Group America, Ltd. Grant changes the donor into an aged female cellist who can't play anymore because she has arthritis. This is so much more touching than the truth.

But her most egregious change is that she destroys Lopez's marriage for effect. In reality Lopez is married with three children -- two sons and a daughter. In the movie Grant has Lopez divorced from his wife, who is also his editor at the newspaper (in reality the editor was an unrelated male). In the movie, they have only one son, from whom Lopez is estranged.

This fictional ex-wife (Catherine Keener) allows Grant to invent a scene at an awards dinner when the drunken wife insults Lopez for being an exploiter. It's a hollow, strained scene.

But director Wright and Grant are on the same wavelength He too creates strained effects. His flashbacks of Nathaniel's younger days in Cleveland and at the Julliard School of Music are dull and routine

His psychedelic images of Nathaniel hearing music have no spirit. They're just swirling colors -- psychedelic outtakes.

Wright also employs corny slapstick. He thinks urine is really funny. In one scene Lopez takes a pratfall when he slips on urine he spilled from a container in a bathroom stall in a hospital after he receives a phone call from Julliard. Riotous. In another scene Lopez pours coyote urine -- which he is using to combat raccoons -- all over himself when he loses control of the bag holding it. Again, a laugh riot. Chuck Jones is spinning in his grave -- even Wile E. Coyote never slipped on his own urine. But he never knew Wright.

Wright's opening shot is peddling feet, and his final sequence occurs with the four main characters sitting at a concert. No imagination there.

A final image of the homeless -- Wright supposedly used actual homeless people -- is mannered. It lacks any verisimilitude.

What is remarkable is that Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr escape with their talent intact. They are the only reason to see The Soloist.

They are sweet in a sour movie.

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