Thursday, April 23, 2009
Jamie Foxx's brilliant, disturbed solo
A mildly tormented Robert Downey Jr. does justice to Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Jamie Foxx does more than justice to Nathaniel Ayers, a cellist who loses his grip on reality at Juilliard and eventually finds himself on the streets of Los Angeles, a homeless man caught in a schizophrenic maelstrom.
Despite a couple of fine performances, "The Soloist" -- an adaptation of a book Lopez wrote about his encounter with Ayers -- doesn't quite make it as a movie, perhaps because the script either feels cramped (when it concentrates on Lopez and Ayers) or padded (when it deals with Lopez' relationship with a former wife and current editor played by Catharine Keener). A relationship story in search of a movie, "The Soloist" has the unsatisfying feel of something cobbled together from a variety of Lopez's columns. Columns, by nature, are episodic; movies need stronger through-lines.
Despite Downey's best efforts, Lopez doesn't entirely work as a character. The script struggles to find ways to define Lopez's life, sometimes resorting to ploys so inelegant, they could pass for Jim Carrey out-takes -- two awkward scenes in which Lopez accidentally gets urine all over his clothes, for example. By the end, he's not sure about what he's accomplished by providing Ayers with a cello, taking him to a Los Angeles Symphony rehearsal and finding him an apartment. For his part, Ayers remains a paranoid schizophrenic with an immoderate love of Beethoven.
It doesn't help that director Joe Wright ("Atonement") burdens the proceedings with flashbacks to Ayers' childhood. An abstract set piece (a light show of sorts) proves more successful, showing us what Ayers experiences when he listens to Beethoven. If nothing else, it's a bold attempt to find a visual expression for what's transpiring in Ayers' mind.
For all its problems, "The Soloist" still may be worth seeing. It provides a platform for a difficult and powerful performance by Foxx. Dressed in sequined suits with his hair parted down the middle, Foxx conveys the pain of a man who can't escape the turbulent weather in his own mind. In those moments when Ayers emerges from the clouds of madness, we see a deep sadness in his eyes. Foxx also conveys the fatigue spawned by the ceaseless demands of schizophrenia and life on the streets. Ayers often stands under an overpass, playing a two-string violin. In what appears to be an act of willful isolation, he's removed from any listener.
It's always perilous to speculate about a director's intentions, but the movie's use of real street people and a general lack of sentimentality suggest that Wright was trying for something socially relevant and authentic. Up to a point, he succeeds: A sense of hellish chaos characterizes life in the streets. Still, this authenticity can't quite save a movie that has some beautifully realized moments, but never quite finds its rhythm.
Note: If you want a crash course in the story, but don't want to see the movie, watch a "60 Minutes" piece on Ayers and read Lopez's columns at a special page provided by The Los Angeles Times. Wisely, the "60 Minutes" piece tilts away from Lopez and toward Ayers.