'The Soloist'

On The Aisle

By Tony Macklin

Just because “The Soloist” is about a homeless person doesn’t mean it should have pedestrian direction. But it does. Pedestrian and clodhopping.
When it was announced that Steve Lopez’s book “The Soloist” was going to be made into a movie with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., I was exhilarated. Little did I know how poorly Joe Wright would direct.
Fortunately, Foxx and Downey don’t allow the movie to be the rancid syrup Wright threatens to make it. Wright and screenwriter Susannah Grant rob the work of its naturalness and authenticity. The two artistic actors have to fight contrivance at every turn. They are admirable in doing so.
Lopez (Downey), a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote about his encounter and developing relationship with homeless musician Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Foxx).
Ayers is a gifted but mentally incapacitated musician who loves Beethoven and plays classical music on the streets and in the tunnels of Los Angeles. Lopez meets Ayers in Pershing Square and begins to write about him in his column. When Lopez first meets Ayers, Ayers is playing a violin with only two strings. Lopez gets involved in trying to lift Ayres out of his psychological confinement. It’s a difficult but edifying challenge.
What is infuriating and frustrating about “The Soloist” is that the two main actors are so much better than the mediocre movie. It’s like playing Beethoven in an elevator. Their director pours catsup over the filet mignon of their talent.
You have three artists — Beethoven, Foxx and Downey — and they’re dumped into a movie directed by a toneless klutz. Almost every decision and change director Wright and Grant make is ill conceived.
In the book, Lopez begins to appreciate classical music because of Ayers. In the movie, Wright takes one allusion to Neil Diamond and runs with it. Ayers had a picture of Diamond on his wall because he thought it was Lopez.
So Wright has Lopez at home at night listening to Neil Diamond’s “Mr. Bojangles.” When Lopez goes to a bar, what is playing on the jukebox? Neil Diamond singing, “Forever in Blue Jeans.” What a coincidence! This isn’t eclecticism. It’s contrivance. And it’s dumbing down. Yeah, and Beethoven wants season tickets to NASCAR.
Grant cuts almost anything that smacks of intelligence in the book. She cuts Ayers’ long quote from Hamlet. She cuts Ayers’ clever line, “I’m playing in the tunnel, where Don Quixote and Colonel Sanders have been involved in a bloody battle.” She cuts that he sings a line from Italian opera. Grant also totally cuts the profane aspect of Ayers.
She depends on contrivance that she never would have allowed when she wrote “Erin Brockovich.” Grant makes Ayers’ teacher a religious zealot. She changes the donor who sends a cello to Ayers’. In reality, the donor was the CEO of the Pearl River Piano Group America Ltd. Grant changes the donor to a female cellist who can’t play anymore because she has arthritis. This is so much more touching than the truth.
But her most egregious change is that she destroys Lopez’s marriage for effect. In reality Lopez is married with three children. In the movie Lopez is divorced from his wife, who is also his editor at the newspaper. In reality the editor was an unrelated male. This fictional ex-wife (Catherine Keener) allows Grant to invent a scene at an awards dinner when the drunken wife insults Lopez for being an exploiter. It’s a hollow, strained scene.
Flashbacks of Ayers’ younger days in Cleveland and at the Julliard School of Music are dull and routine. The psychedelic images of Ayers hearing music have no spirit. They’re just swirling colors … psychedelic outtakes.
Wright also employs corny slapstick. He thinks urine is really funny. In one scene, Lopez takes a pratfall when he slips on urine he spilled from a container in a bathroom stall in a hospital after he receives a phone call from Julliard. Riotous.
In another scene, Lopez accidently spills coyote urine — which he is using to combat raccoons — on himself. Again, a laugh riot. Chuck Jones is spinning in his grave. Even Wile E. Coyote never slipped on his own urine. But he never knew Wright.
A final image of the homeless — Wright supposedly used actual homeless people in the film — is mannered. It lacks any verisimilitude. What is remarkable is that Foxx and Downey escape with their talent intact. They are the only reason to see “The Soloist.” They are sweet in a sour movie.

Categories: Entertainment