Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"I can hear the music we're supposed to be playing" A Review of "The Soloist"

Pessimism, cynicism, realism, call it what you like, but many of us fall victim to this type of thinking. When someone has become genre savvy to reality they may eventually look for something somewhere that gives them hope that maybe the world can be fixed. This type of thinking can lead that person on a quest to try to fix the world, whether they should or not. This is a movie about someone just like that.

“The Soloist” is based on the book “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, And The Redemptive Power of Music” by Steve Lopez. The book itself is based on a series of columns he wrote for the Los Angeles Times about a homeless virtuoso named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers.

In the film, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.: “Iron Man”, “Tropic Thunder”) is a typical cynical Angelino. He's a writer for the L.A. Times in a time where print media is starting to enter the downturn it is currently in. Far from worrying about the fact that his peers are being laid off around him, he is more concerned with finding topics for his column

One day Lopez discovers Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx: “Ray”, “In Living Color”) sitting at the feet of the Beethoven statue in Pershing Square playing a violin with only two strings. Lopez is ready to dismiss him as just one of the many mentally ill homeless in L.A. when Ayers mentions he went to the Julliard. School

Smelling a story, Lopez confirms that Ayers attended Julliard as a cellist, but left after schizophrenia manifested itself. Lopez writes his article, and that could be then end of it, but a reader sends him a cello to give to Ayers. After hearing how Ayers plays an instrument with all of its strings, Lopez writes more articles.

Lopez eventually stops viewing Ayers as just a subject for a story, but as a real person who should not be where he is in life. Shocked at the idea of a man so talented living on the streets with the masses of homeless, he decides to try and save Ayers from the life he finds himself in, whether or not Nathaniel wants him to.

“The Soloist” is award-bait, pure and simple. I say this not as a criticism, but as a statement of fact. Being somewhat cynical myself, I know that the awards shows tend to look kindly on the mentally ill, but that in no way cheapens what is a beautiful movie. Any award nominations this film gets, it deserves.

Foxx and Downey play their roles wonderfully. Downey portrays Steve Lopez as a cynical ass who deep down is a good person (or at least wants to be), and wants to find some good in the world; he also plays him as much of the film's comic relief. Foxx plays Ayers sort of like “Rain Man” on uppers, one second rambling a nearly incoherent stream of words, and the next totally at peace as the music takes him.

I only have two real criticisms of this movie, so lets get them out of the way now:

The movie seems a little jumpy at times, like things are being glossed over. This is not uncommon for movies based on books, nor is it uncommon for movies based on true stories (since reality does not always follow the rules of good storytelling). This is only as distracting as you let it be though; if you can just sit back and experience the film, it is only a minor issue.

The second, and bigger, issue is the character of Graham Claydon (Tom Hollander). Claydon is a Cellist called by Lopez to try and help Nathaniel regain the cello skills he had in his youth. Unfortunately Claydon is one of those Christians who does not believe in subtlety, and repeatedly tries to force his beliefs on the mentally unstable Ayers to negative effect, seemingly more concerned with converting him to Christianity than actually helping his art. I do believe that Claydon has the best of intentions in these scenes, but good intentions do not necessarily equal good actions.

My issue with Claydon is not his actions, but his portrayal; Hollander's portrayal of Claydon is so over the top as to be potentially offensive to Christians. It is almost as if the director wanted there so badly to be a villain in this movie that he wanted to make the audience really dislike this character. Now for all I know the real-life version of Graham Claydon (if he exists) may be a complete horse's ass as portrayed, but in a movie full of such wonderful performances seeing this two-dimensional character is distracting, and does cheapen the experience a little.

“The Soloist” is not a movie that you watch, it is one that you experience. The film masterfully plays with sound and picture to try and make you see what the characters see. The sound in particular makes this worth seeing in a theater with a really good sound system; from the chilling sounds of the voices in Nathaniel's head, to the discordant sounds of Lopez's tape recorder, to the way Nathaniel's music drowns out the cacophony of the city around him, the sound is as much a character in this film as any actor.

If you've read many of my reviews you know that I am generally a proponent of waiting to see movies on DVD, but not this time. Unless you have a superb home theater set-up, you will not get the full experience of this film. Even then, some of the visuals are so striking up on the big screen in the darkened theater, like during the light show behind Nathaniel's eyes as he listens to the symphony rehearse, that it will be almost impossible to reproduce at home.

“The Soloist” combines fantastic acting, visuals, sound, and over all direction to tell a touching and hopeful story. A story that explores the plight of the homeless and mentally ill, the desire for one man to help another, and the almost magical qualities that music can have. This award-worthy film is definitely one to check out when it it comes to theaters this Friday, April 24th.

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