Thursday, April 30, 2009

‘The Soloist’ – Not a solo act…

In any other hands, ‘The Soloist’ (based on a true story) could have been sentimental overkill; but deftly crafted by Jamie Fox as the troubled, homeless musical genius Nathaniel Anthony Ayers and Robert Downey Jr. as the LA Times Columnist Steve Lopez who befriends him, it is a film that simply tries too hard to pull at our heart strings. It is their performances that ultimately rescues the film and drives home the value of the message it is attempting to deliver. Their sweet, soft performances blunt the hammer like direction of Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) and his constant barrage of symbolism; but he does it so honestly, you can’t help but like this film.

Lopez (Downey) is desperately searching for a story one bleak morning after a biking accident; the LA Times is facing financial crisis and his co-workers are losing their jobs. While wandering through a park Lopez hears the soft playing of a violin and follows the tones to the homeless Ayers (Fox) who he soon learns once studied at Julliard; knowing a good story Lopez begins to follow and write the tale of Ayers.
Lopez soon learns that Ayers is not an easy subject to interview. Ayer suffers from acute Schizophrenia and alternates between reality and lucidness. Conversations with Ayers are often frustrating and at times, dangerous. A different actor may have gone over the top with the Ayers character; here Fox has played him with humanity and compassion. Equally so, Downey gives Lopez a strong sense of growth and purpose. In the beginning, Ayers is a story, another reason to grow readership; by the end, Ayers becomes a relationship to Lopez and Downey portrays that emotional growth.

In films of this nature there is a tendency for the action to be ‘over the top’ – hence my initial sentimental overkill comment. There are several scenes where there is such that – any scene involving the homeless shelter as an example; but again this is a case of director Wright simply driving his point home with a bit of a sledge hammer, something he really did not need to do. Equally frustrating was the barrage of musical underscoring, in particular during a symphony performance that Ayers was able to attend. As an audience we were able to view the music ‘through Ayers’ perception’ which was akin to a colorful light barrage. I was concerned that others in the theater might succumb to epileptic seizures it went on so long. The acting of Downey and Fox however helped to keep the film grounded. Downey in particular was in rare form; he singlehandedly softened a film that at times was all too obvious in its messaging.

‘The Soloist’ is not a solo act – but a fine dual performance that will tug at your heart strings. 3 Stars.

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