July 23, 2009

Movie Review: The Soloist

Got a chance to see the Soloist the other night. This film showed in a concrete way that you can't force someone to change unless they are ready.

This is based on a true story, and it's believable. Steve Lopez (Robert Downy, Jr in another great role) is a cynical journalist. He knows how to find the good story out of the most mundane circumstances. He isn't above interviewing anyone if it means he will get some readers to enjoy his column. He makes a personal bike accident sound thoughtful and provoking, as he rhapsodizes about the state of a neighborhood hospital.

One day he comes upon Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) , who is homeless and rambles when he talks. Yet he tells Lopez that he used to attend Julliard. After checking out his story, Lopez takes a special interest in Ayers and decides he would make a good human interest piece. Lopez interviews him and listens to him play, but it's all word related---at first. Then he starts to get involved in Ayer's life, and he begins to take a genuine interest in Ayers. Lopez sees the talent in Ayers and he wants to see that talent get used. Here is where I think the movie flopped in most people's eyes.

We all love an underdog story. We want to see that homeless person defeat all of his monsters and settle down in a nice, normal life. Lopez wants him in an apartment, possibly giving concerts and sharing his music with the world. And if he (Lopez) gets some of the credit for bring this talent to light, well that's quite all right with him. In the traditional film, Ayers would have pulled himself up by his bootstraps and live happily ever after. We like that.

What happens instead is much more realistic and true.
I won't spoil the ending for you, but we don't get the happily ever after ending. We do see hope in this film, and a life is changed, but I would argue that the life most changed is Lopez himself. He's the typical cynical, hardworking journalist. He's worked hard all of his life and managed to push all of his meaningful relationships away. Robert Downy, Jr. is the right combination of rugged, cynical, selfish, and flawed to play this role. Jamie Foxx gives a great performance as a mentally ill man with demons in his past and a child's heart. When he listens to music, his eyes shine and we want to feel what he is feeling.

Besides the acting, the most notable thing about this film is its portrait of the homeless community. Lopez tells Ayers if he wants to play the cello that a reader donated, he will have to play in the homeless shelter. Ayers is terrified to go down there. To get to the shelter, you have to dodge drug dealers, panhandlers, prostitutes, and more. The shelter itself is run by a kindly man (Nelsan Ellis) who sees through Lopez's "good deeds" to his conditional love for Ayers. There are some beautiful scenes that take place in this shelter where Ayers plays his cello for the homeless residents. And it's like a soothing balm.

I have been to feed the homeless events, and I saw the faces of the people I had fed as I watched this film. Sometimes it's hard for us to understand why many homeless don't take advantage of the services available to them. I think this film shows that it's not always easy to get to those places, first of all, and even when you arrive, there is often mental illness that stops people from getting the help they need.

I recommend this film. It's well worth a rental.

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