The Soloist is a story about a relationship across a socioeconomic chasm. Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) have absolutely nothing in common, unless you count a propensity for stringing words together — which doesn’t count, because Lopez gets paid for it by the Los Angeles Times, while Ayers’ disjointed, rambling volubility is largely incomprehensible.
Lopez is a Los Angeles suburbanite whose biggest problem is raccoons digging up his back yard turf for worms. Ayers is homeless, mentally ill, almost unreachable in a fog of confusion.
Lopez does not volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, nor does he attend some progressive urban church where someone like him and someone like Ayers might conceivably move in the same circles. The likelihood of a middle-class professional making room in his life for a schizophrenic homeless man is vanishingly small.
But the film is based on a true story, adapted from the writings of the real-life Lopez — which, in a way, is itself the explanation for Lopez’s and Ayers’s relationship. Like any columnist, Lopez is always on the lookout for story fodder, and when he runs across Ayers in a public square playing a two-stringed violin — and catches a reference to “Julliard” in Ayers’s torrent of words — Lopez smells a story. Maybe even a series.
It reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about “Family Circus” cartoonist Bil Keane stalking his children around the house waiting for them to do something adorable. Pastors face a comparable occupational hazard of viewing life through the filter of possible sermon illustrations. For that matter, film critics can fall into a similar trap, missing the experience of the movie they’re watching as they mentally compose the review they plan to write for it.
In this case, though, Lopez’s column could be an occasion of grace. At first Ayers is a story to him, but in time he becomes something more. As he becomes involved with the other man, Lopez hopes to help him somehow … and, of course, Hollywood convention leads us to expect that, somehow, Ayers will wind up helping Lopez — help him learn to care, or redeem him from the inauthenticity of his suburban existence, or something.
Fortunately, nothing so formulaically uplifting ultimately happens, although the story doesn’t entirely escape the gravitational field of the relevant clichés.
Lopez does manage to lure the drifting Ayers off the streets to Lamp Community, a Skid Row organization that works with mentally ill homeless people. (Large light-up letters at Lamp proclaim the message of Romans 6:23 (“The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life”), though whatever religious character the community might is not otherwise evident in either the film, Lopez’s book or the group’s website.) Ayers even gets cello lessons — but the one time he tries to give a real recital he panics and runs off the stage … and there’s no later triumphant payoff.
Like Marley and Me — another recent fact-based movie about a newspaper columnist adapted from the columnist’s own book — The Soloist has a somewhat shapeless, unfocused structure that generally feels both messy and plausibly real. If occasional, ill-advised lapses into Marley and Me–style slapstick are totally inappropriate here, at least The Soloist has the decency to confine them to Lopez’s private moments, treating Ayers and other homeless figures with appropriate respect. Given that extras were cast from actual homeless people whose mental states are unfeigned, anything less would have been monstrous.
Foxx gives a virtuoso performance as a character who is gifted but not magical, a musician with talent buried by decades of neglect and schizophrenia. “Do you think I could ever be good again?” he sadly asks the cellist Lopez arranges for him to meet. He’s not a typical movie savant like Geoffrey Rush in Shine or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, someone gifted without limits. Downey Jr. is similarly masterful, though with echoes of Tony Stark insouciance. (When a Julliard operator tells him that she has no record of a Nathaniel Ayers ever attending the school, Lopez blithely objects, “But then I have no story.”)
Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Charlotte’s Web, Erin Brockovich, Pocahontas) aren’t scrupulous about sticking to source material, and the story takes liberties with the facts, usually to dubious effect.
The picture opens with Lopez taking a nasty spill on his bicycle, a fictional incident with no obvious narrative value; structurally, it recalls the opening car crash from Grant’s Erin Brockovich, except that (a) the latter really happened and (b) it was relevant to the story.
More significantly, Grant makes Lopez a commitment-phobic divorcé whose ex-wife — and editor — Mary Weston (Catherine Keener) amicably rags on him to call their son. The real Lopez is married (not to his editor) with a young daughter, though his involvement with Ayers did put a strain on his family life. Why would Grant make this change?
Perhaps she wanted Lopez and Ayers to share a similar sense of isolation; if so, this is exactly the wrong approach. The Soloist is not about what Lopez and Ayers have in common, but precisely what they don’t. Allowing Lopez to be a family man would only have accentuated the disparity between his comparatively successful, functional life and Ayers’s marginal, dysfunctional existence — which is where the film’s drama lies.
Although The Soloist seems determined to keep it real when it comes to depicting the homeless, the gritty realism is strangely counterbalanced by comic slapstick — and what, in particular, is up with the urine-related humor?
In one scene Lopez gets a key call on his cellphone while peeing in a medical sample cup in a hospital men’s room stall, somehow leading to him dropping the cup, slipping on the puddle, and crashing to the floor in the stall, all while trying to field the phone call. In another, Lopez fumbles comically with a plastic bag of — I swear I am not making this up — commercially marketed reconstituted coyote urine, which is supposed to function as a raccoon deterrent. Sure enough, he winds up drenched in the stuff. Would you be shocked to learn that the only mentions of urine in the book refer to the fetid street conditions in which the city’s homeless live?
One of the strangest fictionalizations is Ayers’s quasi-religious fixation on Lopez himself, whom Ayers repeatedly describes as his “god.” In the book, Ayers’s “gods” are Itzhak Perlman, Jascha Heifetz and above all Beethoven. Other religious references are equally strange: Ayers’s cello instructor becomes an off-puttingly pious, unhelpful do-gooder (Tom Hollander, who played the similarly obnoxious Mr. Collins in Wright’s Pride & Prejudice). And a dorky unbeliever from an atheist group participating in an adopt-a-highway program fields ironic interview questions from Lopez.
More and more I become convinced that fictional changes to fact-based stories almost invariably diminish rather than enhance the dramas they create; that the greatest service a storyteller can do his audience is to tell the truth; and that, the more familiar one is with the underlying reality, the more one recognizes the significance of what has been lost in the adaptation. (I don’t think it’s any accident that, of all the reviews of the film currently listed at Metacritic.com, the the least favorable write-up is by Lopez’s Los Angeles Times colleague Kenneth Turan.)
All of that said, the basic contours of the story do emerge from the ill-advised Hollywood stylings. The Soloist is ultimately a story about a relationship one that starts with professional interest, becomes a mission to help a lost soul, and finally coalesceses in something like friendship and respect. Does Lopez help Ayers? Does Ayers help Lopez? It’s messy.
An episode toward the end of the story — drawn from the book — sums it up well. Throughout their relationship, Lopez has called Ayers by his first name, Nathaniel, while Ayers called the writer “Mr. Lopez.” Eventually, this paternalistic asymmetry breaks down, and Lopez apologizes to Ayers. This is where the Hollywood tendency would be for Ayers to invite Nathaniel to call him “Steve.” Instead, Lopez shifts to addressing the other man as “Mr. Ayers.” That’s how it should be, I think.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.