[24 April 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Not every true story makes for good cinema. Sometimes, an intriguing idea is just that - a decent concept that can’t take the transition from fact to big screen “fiction”. From the soggy motion picture biographies of far more significant individuals to the frequently fabricated horror films based “on actual incidents”, the notion that truth trumps anything that a writer could create is narrow-minded at best, ridiculous at the very worst. Speaking of subpar, the proposed award season entry from last year, The Soloist, is finally hitting theaters just before the start of the Summer movie blitz. Many have waited several months to see Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx tear up the screen in anticipation of several little gold statutes. Based on the movie being offered, however, they will be waiting a really long time.
While he recuperates from a bad bicycle accident, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez scours the city, looking for the next great human interest story. He discovers it in one Nathanial Ayers, a homeless musician who claims to have attended Juilliard. A little research proves the man’s claims as correct. A little more investigation reveals why he never completed his education - Nathanial is mentally ill, hearing a nonstop stream of voices in his head that only a life on the street can stifle. Lopez wants to help, steering Ayers toward a skid row shelter where he might get some much needed assistance. But the well-meaning journalist soon learns that Los Angeles’ street people need more than just a handout. They deserve and demand respect, something that even this high minded reporter can’t completely provide.
There is not a single honest emotion in The Soloist - from the divorced reporter who sees himself as the voice of a city to a schizophrenic virtuoso who saw the voices in this head ruin his chances at Juilliard, and all that comes from such a studied musical education. Like another movie about mental illness which substituted gimmicks for gritty truths, this is A Beautiful Mind with random accents of Beethoven. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. is back in the good graces of Hollywood’s acting A-list, his troubled reporter reduced to spastic stoicism as a way of making up for his lacking as a parent and partner, and Catherine Keener is all hippy momma earthiness as his ex-wife/editor keeping the corporate wolves at bay while her man makes his way around the general interest elements of Southern California.
The minute Jamie Foxx shows up, however, whatever effectiveness director Joe Wright can muster is melted away in a community college level of thespianism. There is never an authentic note in what the former In Living Color comic turned Oscar winning egotist tries with the troubled Nathanial Ayers. While it all may be based in reality (this is a - mostly - true story after all), Foxx just doesn’t have the depth to pull it off. He’s so mannered, so obviously giving a “performance” that we see ever preplanned twitch, cringe at every ad-libbed attempt at turning reams of dialogue into demented rants. Foxx fails miserably here. He will be heroic and championed only by those whose cinematic experience is limited to movies made in the last ten years. Others who trodden down this territory and succeeded - Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? - could give the wannabe scene stealer a lessen or two.
None of this excuses Wright. Somehow, his epic eye in Atonement has gone cloudy and unfocused here. When Foxx “experiences” classical selections, the audience witnesses them in some of the most confusing, disconnected montages ever. One offers CG pigeons cascading across as Google Earth version of LA, while another is a direct rip-off of Fantasia, down to the darkened screen and the sudden bursts of rhythmically timed color. Ayers madness is realized in Dolby Digital delirium, the constant conversations in his head rendered moot of meaning or motivation. And then there are the flashbacks. The first one arrives so unexpectedly that we don’t even recognize that Wright has taken us into the past. Soon, whenever the story gets complicated, we are whisked back to sepia tones, bad fashion, and a repetitive reminder that, if it wasn’t for his bad brain, Nathanial would be a star.
It all becomes so trite and unconvincing - and that’s not even dealing with the excess material Wright feels compelled to add in. There are literal cinematic lectures about respecting the homeless, neo-noir journeys into the dark pits of Los Angeles Hell-like skid row, and an obsession with urine that’s never explained. Downey’s character is supposedly one of those gruff and uncompromising newshounds who can smell a story a mile away. Yet when the city pulls a fast one and uses its multi-million dollar commitment as an excuse to sweep through the streets with a “clean up” task force, he seems stunned. In fact, he’s so dew-eyed and defeated that he can’t see the object of his concern standing right behind him. From the ‘Go with God’ cello instructor that actually makes Ayers worse to the coda which claims that all is right with the situational world now that our subject is living indoors, The Soloist strains for credibility. All it manages to do is pull a series of motion picture muscles.
Had there been a more concerted effort to boil things down to a purely personal level, had Wright and his screenwriters stripped away all the strangled social commentary and simply focused on Lopez and Ayers, we might have something special. Indeed, had a real actor been paired against the always terrific Downey, we’d perhaps experience the same kind of emotional tug that made this tale so celebrated in the first place. No one is knocking the work the real Steve Lopez did to help Nathanial Ayers rise up from a horrible, squalid situation, and the movie never really exploits the talented and troubled man. But when dealing with the often harsh realities of life on the street, we shouldn’t be so aware of the falsehoods floating around. The Soloist is all artifice. It should have stayed true to the art involved.