Forget the Dudley Doright Act
Perhaps the most genuine-feeling portion of the DVD release of The Soloist is the PSA that opens the program. In a plug for takepart.com, the real L.A. Times journalist Steve Lopez advises that sometimes the best thing one can do for a homeless person is “just saying hello.” That’s consistent with my own experience, and it seems like heartfelt and sound advice.
Now for the rest of the movie, much of whose tone I was unsure how to read.
Filled with narrative implausibilities—such as the call that Robert Downey, Jr., as Lopez, takes from Julliard while peeing into a cup, or the scene lit by the eternal moviecar dome light (and car headlights that aren’t even turned on)—the film attempts to strike a light comedic tone that plays to Downey’s deadpan, manic style. It tells the tale of a cynical Times columnist who one day stumbles across a homeless man with a Julliard pedigree and a schizophrenic profile. As he struggles to find a voice for the plight of Nathaniel Ayers, Junior, and help Ayers find a way out of it, he finds out that, societally speaking, he is as much a soloist as Ayers. Together they find a way to integrate themselves back into life.
Along the way, the two central characters serve up a good deal of talk about God. Ayers, for instance, has a gift that makes his momma “hear the voice of God,” even when a youngster. “You’ve got something special, baby,” she tells him, “a way out” of their violence-ridden Cleveland neighborhood. A passionate fan of Beethoven, the teen has discovered an inroad to the music of the spheres, director Joe Wright’s camera tells us—which is a fortunate solace, because, in a sequence not dissimilar to one from Shine a decade or so ago, Ayers’ psychiatric problems become fairly well-developed and debilitating by the time he wins an appointment to a prestigious arts academy.
Ayers’ retreat into the therapeutic and simple pleasures of music—“honor thy father and mother, and hopefully the music will take care of itself,” he tells Lopez while playing the violin under an L.A. overpass one day—proves effective not only for Ayers but for the journalist. Ayers’ desire for peace is deep and genuine; “I hope the whole world sleeps well,” he says, and means it (as far as we can tell). And that passion convinces the cynical Lopez that “there’s something higher out there.” It’s “grace,” his editor/ex-wife informs him. Ayers manages to find and deliver a measure of peace amidst the chaos that is L.A. street life.
As Lopez increasingly dedicates himself to rehabilitating Ayers, though, things get out of whack. By the time Ayers tells Lopez, “You are my God,” it’s understandable—and also understandable how the fragile Ayers then comes to resent such string-pulling. A major theme of the film is the ways in which we, as damaged, fallen human beings, so often try to find meaning in life by playing God, imagining that one broken creature has the power to fix another, more broken yet perhaps better-healed creature. At what point do you stop trying to play God?
But there’s this problem with tone along the way, as the script and Wright’s interpretation of it rarely lets us figure out how much of the story—or message—we’re supposed to take seriously. Lopez, for instance, attempts to interview a clueless atheist adopt-a-highway volunteer; later, Lopez arranges cello lessons for Ayers with a musician who stages clumsy and naively goofy religiously-motivated interventions for Ayers.
The worst part of this unevenness of tone is that audiences could easily read the overly-orchestrated mayhem of the LAMP Community, an L.A. mission to the homeless that serves as a magnet for a good share of the city’s 90,000 street people, as tongue-in-cheek. As a result, neither the scene in which Ayers’ music conveniently calms the souls of each of the homeless people to whom Lopez has spoken nor the one in which the community is raided by the police to haul in those illegally “in possession of shopping carts and milk crates” strikes much of a chord.
And remember the stunning sequences in Shine or Amadeus that give life and vibrancy to the works of Rachmaninov and Mozart? Here, Joe Wright summons all the creative flair of a Windows Media Player visualization as a paean to Beethoven. Huh. I guess the film blew most of its budget on Downey and Jamie Foxx.
I really wanted to like The Soloist more. It had great buzz while in the theaters, and I’ve spent enough time working with the homeless to consider myself already one the converted to the film’s cause. But aside from a scene in which Foxx, as Ayers, chases his god from the temple like a mere moneychanger, very little in the film struck me as authentic—shocking, really, for a film whose story is so purely plucked from reality.
Do yourself a favor. Check out The Soloist if the story or a Downey/Foxx drama intrigues you. Choose to take the film seriously and disregard any audience-pandering humor you stumble across. Listen to the commentary, and study the accompanying special features.
Then take homelessness seriously, too. We’re all broken, and we’re all in the same boat together.
The Soloist is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, some drug use and language.” For thematic elements? Are you kidding me? Is the notion that street people need to be treated with dignity potentially damaging to our kids?!??! The drug use and language are there, to be sure; but please. I guess in this culture the film’s messages really DO need to be administered with a spoonful of sugar.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of The Soloist.