What is it about classical music that makes good filmmakers go all goofy? Joe Wright, who impressed with the 2005 version of “Pride & Prejudice” and more recently his fine adaptation of “Atonement,” appears to have been baffled by the assignment to helm this fact-based tale about the unlikely relationship that develops between a Los Angeles journalist and the schizophrenic street musician whom he befriends. In his hands “The Soloist” seems more about making a statement than translating the story into an affecting drama. It’s not as off-base as “August Rush,” the 2007 Keri Russell flop, but it comes disturbingly close.
The first problem lies in the central story—the discovery of troubled Nathaniel Ayres (Jamie Foxx) by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) and the newsman’s attempt both to write about the man and to help him recover something of a normal life. Investigation reveals that Ayres had been a promising cello student at Juilliard before suffering a breakdown and taking to the streets. Besides reuniting the man with his sister (Lisagay Hamilton), Lopez gets him a cello and lessons with Graham Claydon (Tom Hollander), the first chair of the LA Philharmonic. But while stoking Ayres’s love of music and getting him to reside in a room at a local shelter, where the cello must be kept, rather than on the street, Lopez’s efforts to reintegrate him with the world may prove too much for the man’s fragile mental state.
Potentially this is a very moving story, but Susannah Grant’s script and Wright’s treatment of it lack nuance and subtlety. Everything is played in the broadest strokes, from the whoosh of orchestral accompaniment that suddenly wells up from the heavens when Ayers first puts bow to instrument again (which segues into an even more ludicrous image of birds soaring off into the sky), to the pompous religiosity of Claydon, which sets Ayers off when he’s about to give a recital (a cheap melodramatic crutch). Even Ayers’s reaction to the music when Lopez gets him into a rehearsal by the Philharmonic is badly judged. As we hear the strains of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony (the work that apparently obsessed Ayers throughout his life—it reappears so often here that you might fear its next coming), Wright turns the screen into a multi-colored light show, as though one were peering out from the inside of a lava lamp. As a way of indicating the transporting power of the music, that’s a shorthand that doesn’t convey much.
Neither do the persistent flashbacks inserted to dramatize Ayers’s backstory, first as a Ohio kid and then as a Juilliard student. These are presented in a frenzied style, with garish colors and, in the breakdown sequences, ghostly voices superimposed on one another on the soundtrack, that are ostentatiously—one might say desperately—arty.
Given all this, it’s perhaps not surprising that the stars do not seem at their best. Foxx fares pretty well in what amounts to a “Rain Man”-type turn that, if the picture were released in the fall rather than the spring, might have been Oscar bait. But though accomplished in purely technical terms, he’s straightjacketed by the uninspired script that doesn’t take us terribly far inside the man. Downey is even less impressive. Wright tries to play to the actor’s loose persona by allowing him a flippant line delivery that reduces much of his dialogue to a sort of quirky riff, but the character remains stubbornly opaque—as, for example, in his ill-defined relationship with his ex-wife Mary (Catherine Keener), who works with him at the Times, which never comes into focus. Downey’s obviously a very talented person, but he just never gets a handle on Steve Lopez that would distinguish the character from the actor. And what’s the point of the persistent theme of urine—Lopez drops his specimen during a medical test, slips on it and falls, and then later is doused with coyote urine when he’s trying to hang bags of the stuff in the trees near his house to ward off raccoons. When that’s the quality of the comic relief, you know the picture’s in trouble.
But what really sinks “The Soloist” is Wright’s decision to turn the two-person drama into a big-issue sermon about homelessness. The director’s pumping up of the Ayers-Lopez story is bad enough, but it’s magnified by being set against the milieu of that shelter where Ayers’ cello is kept—a place surrounded, as Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey depict it, in surrealistically horrifying (and unconscionably protracted) scenes—by what appears to be a small army of unfortunates, some authentically scary but many sweetly pathetic or eccentrically comic. Indeed, the personal narrative sometimes threatens to get lost in the wider picture of wretchedness and societal unconcern that Wright paints with a very heavy hand (even including a sequence of the mayor dropping in to announce some new governmental funding).
And as if that weren’t enough, Grant and Wright take the time to add a few scenes about the economic plight of newspapers. As with the just-released “State of Play,” the atmosphere of the jammed, harried newsroom gets considerable play here, however nostalgic (or anachronistic) as it might be.
It remains to note that “The Soloist” has been mounted as sumptuously in its way as “Atonement” was—which is saying a great deal. McGarvey’s widescreen lensing is impressive even when it seems wrongheaded, and apart from the overuse of the “Eroica” (a great piece the movie could put you off for some time), the score, so important in this case, is beautifully presented. It’s also good to get extended glimpses of Disney Hall, by now a landmark in pictures set in L.A., and to hear the Philharmonic under the baton of its fine young conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
But good production values don’t compensate for an emptiness at the center of the picture. Some weeks ago the CBS news program “Sixty Minutes” did a piece on the actual men on whom “The Soloist” is based. As it turns out, that piece was more moving and insightful than this mawkish, manipulative, bombastic tearjerker.