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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

The Soloist

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Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
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The Soloist

Based on the book of the same name, The Soloist is the true story of L.A. Times journalist Steve Lopez’ discovery of former musical prodigy turned homeless street musician Nathaniel Anthony Ayers.  The two cross paths in a park as Ayers plays a classical tune on a two-stringed violin under a stern-looking Beethoven statue.

Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) is intrigued when Ayers (Jamie Foxx) mentions his once- upon-a-time enrollment in the prestigious Julliard School of Music. He writes an article about Ayers’, prompting an unexpected cello donation from a reader.  Lopez uses the instrument to lure Ayers into the social service organization L.A.M.P., (the real-life Los Angeles Men’s Program) before he is allowed to play.  As horrifying a prospect as that is to Ayers, the thought of being able to play Beethoven again is too powerful to ignore.

Ayers is positively reverential regarding “Ludwig Van” as he calls the composer.  The tormented man’s love of music is a kind of partial salvation, but can’t wholly free him of delusion and paranoia.  For him, music is experienced through closed eyes in a meditational state, seeing the notes as colors and feeling the presence of Beethoven himself in the room.

Flashbacks into Ayers’ youth fill us in about his early love of music, endless hours of practice, eventual mastery, and successful Julliard matriculation before a gradual descent into the delusions, confusions and voices of schizophrenia.  His subsequent break from reality renders him a scary presence in the basement room of his family home until he literally runs away into the dark streets one night, never to return.  His universe becomes a filled shopping cart.

Along with a philharmonic cellist Graham Claydon (Tom Hollander), Lopez arranges a concert for Ayers with disastrous consequences, compounded by the professional musician’s belief in and attempt at religious conversion.  Lopez is chagrined that his pet project won’t cooperate, and cannot be forced to take medication.  Attempts at domestication lead to panic, violence and threats from Ayers.

The distant Lopez takes a while to fully engage with Ayers as more than just his current subject, ultimately finding some real affection for the man; Ayers proves he is capable of sudden, dangerous rage if cornered.  He will resist attempts to help him if it means giving up his street freedom or being force-fed religion.  He is alternately in denial of and savvy about his condition, at once optimistic and overwhelmed.

Spurred on by his editor and ex-wife Mary Weston (Catherine Keener), Lopez evolves from simply acquiring a compelling story to considering Ayers as a friend.  This, after a long trail leading from suspicion to trust that accompanies most any new relationship, but especially one that pits the marginalized against the mainstream.

Ayers allows his life to take on a kind of order, with an apartment, his sister Jennifer (Lisa Gay Hamilton), and his music.  Lopez finds that after all those years of human interest stories, it’s the human that matters more than the story.

The talented homeless man embodies, as the title implies, both virtuosity and loneliness; a symphony of one, not in tune with his fellow man and an absence of personal harmony that Lopez seeks to heal.

Robert Downey, Jr. is believably sincere and cynical as the reporter whose conscience overrules his contentment.

Jamie Foxx channels Ayers’ torment and passion, aiming to lose himself in the role, but succeeding in making you appreciate how hard he’s trying.  Even so, Foxx animates Ayers’ brilliant musical core obscured by an unraveling intellect, projecting both fear and joy mixed with serenity and rage.

Catherine Keener is effective as a no-nonsense touchstone for Lopez that becomes his catalyst for change.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement) is adept at composing nightmarish human landscapes.  (remember Atonement’s Dunkirk scene?)  Here it’s the frightening L.A. underside of homelessness, poverty and mental illness known as Skid Row.  In Wright’s world, it’s a modern day freak show, treacherous, but with a poetic core once you get past the recoil and reclaim the human element.

This is Oscar-bait, make no mistake, but sometimes such efforts can hit upon real insight and a poignancy that resonates.  Based on a true story (the two principals still reside in L.A.) there is no tidy, happy ending, and like real life, the ambivalence remains, holding its steadfast ground.  There is the satisfying evolution of a peaceful co-existence in the shared common ground the two men achieve, surprising them both.

Like Ayers’ two-stringed violin, The Soloist is capable of hitting some surprisingly fine notes.