Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
"The Soloist" has all the elements of an uplifting drama, except for the uplift. The story is compelling, the actors are in place, but I was never sure what the filmmakers wanted me to feel about it. Based on a true story, it stars Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless man who was once a musical prodigy, and Robert Downey Jr. as Steve Lopez, the Los Angeles Times columnist who writes a column about him, bonds with him, makes him famous, becomes discouraged by the man's mental illness and -- what? Hears him play great music?
"Explaining madness is the most limiting and generally least convincing thing a movie can do," Pauline Kael once wrote. "The Soloist" doesn't even seem sure how to depict it. Unlike Russell Crowe's mathematician in "A Beautiful Mind," whose madness was understood through his own eyes, the musician here seems more of a loose cannon, unpredictable in random ways. Yes, mental illness can be like that, but can successful drama? There comes a point when Lopez has had enough, and so, in sympathy, have we.
That is no fault of Jamie Foxx's performance creating a man who is tense, fearful, paranoid and probably schizophrenic. We can almost smell his terror, through the carnival clown clothing and hats he hides behind. When Foxx learned of this role, he might reasonably have sensed another Academy Award. Unfortunately, the sceenwriter and director don't set up a structure for Oscar-style elevation, nor do they really want to make a serious and doleful film about mental illness. But those are the two apparent possibilities here, and "The Soloist" seems lost between them.
As the film opens, Lopez is troubled. His marriage has problems, he feels burned out at work, he's had a bike accident. He encounters Ayers almost outside the Times building, attracted by the beautiful sounds he's producing on a violin with only two strings. The man can play. Lopez tries to get to know him, writes a first column about him, learns he once studied cello at Juilliard. A reader sends Lopez a cello for him (this actually happened), and the columnist becomes his brother's keeper.