Friday, April 24, 2009

Review: "The Soloist"

"The Soloist" isn't your typical uplifting drama. No great obstacles are overcome, no epiphany about the nature of mankind descends from the heavens. It's about two men who are each in their own way pretty screwed up, and as the story draws to a close they're pretty much the same people they were when they met.

If anything, "The Soloist" has the tone and timbre of an elegy. It's a sad song about regret and loss, about the things that are cast aside carelessly and can't easily be found again. Still, it's in remembering those things and grasping for them that we find that touch of grace.

Robert Downey Jr. gives what is perhaps the finest performance of his career as Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Divorced, a stranger to his son, so bitterly alone that his longtime next-door neighbor feels compelled to introduce himself when they have a late-night encounter, Steve writes stories about unlikely people and subjects. So when he meets Nathaniel Ayers, he sees him as just another source for an interesting column.

He first sees Nathaniel perched beneath a statue of Beethoven, dressed in ridiculous rags and sawing away on a battered violin that only has two strings. In between Nathaniel's rambling Rain Man speech patterns, Steve hears him say he used to attend Julliard. On a lark, he calls the school and finds out the homeless man really did go there more than 30 years ago. Steve bats out what he thinks will be a great one-off column about a kooky street character.

Except that he does too good a job. People are really affected by Nathaniel's story, and an old woman sends Steve her cello to give to the street musician. Steve agrees to do so only on the condition that Nathaniel attend a local center for the homeless, which he agrees to after much cajoling.

The center is situated in another part of L.A. away from the gleaming Times tower, in what looks like a battle zone of a third-world country, where the lost souls fight and smoke crack and kill each other right out in the open.

In sweeping gestures director Joe Wright ("Atonement") sends his camera soaring above the heights of L.A., looking down on the wasted human detritus spread out on cots, in contrast to birds-eye views of neatly manicured neighborhoods. It's an elegant commentary on the contrasting values we place upon property versus people.

Steve continues writing about Nathaniel because it's good copy, and it seems to be having an effect -- the mayor even announces a new initiative to clean up Nathaniel's streets.

But Steve resists the urge to take responsibility for someone else. He arranges for Nathaniel to attend a rehearsal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and even convinces the lead cellist to give him lessons. Yet he convinces himself he's doing it for the story, not for friendship. His ex-wife, who's also his editor (Catherine Keener), not so gently calls him out on it.

Written by Susannah Grant from Lopez' book, "The Soloist" isn't perfect. Foxx's performance, while emotionally resonant, relies a little too heavily on previous film portrayals of mentally fractured souls. And a concert seen through Nathaniel's eyes as an explosion of colored lights was a daring flight of fancy that remains earthbound.

Despite these off notes, "The Soloist" is a wonderfully engaging piece about two people who, despite being so cut off and alone, find in their friendship a soothing harmony.

3.5 stars out of four

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