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Screen » Film

The Mind's Ear: Outstanding cast boosts The Soloist


What's right with this picture?About two weeks ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez spoke on Capitol Hill about issues related to homelessness in American cities. Specifically, he discussed his personal and professional relationship with mentally ill musician Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, played by Jamie Foxx in The Soloist. It wasn't exactly the standard late-night talk show type of appearance you expect in advance of a studio movie, but then again The Soloist isn't your usual Hollywood rags-to-riches redemption story.

With The Soloist, director Joe Wright scorches the screen with the same mixture of fantasy and grungy reality that he used in Atonement.This is probably the first film of 2009 that has serious Oscar aspirations.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays Lopez, the intrepid columnist who spies Ayers in a not-so-chance meeting by a statue of Beethoven in downtown Los Angeles. From there, Lopez learns that Ayers is a former Julliard student with tremendous promise whose life was turned upside-down by voices in his head. An interesting newspaper column idea evolves into something more personal and profound that grows into friendship.

But this isn't A Beautiful Mind: The Musical. Foxx is unyielding in his portrayal of the tortured Ayers. Maybe it's more genes than skill, but Foxx's eyes communicate equal doses of sadness and fury in the same glance. This is a helpful trait for someone playing a paranoid schizophrenic. Yet when Ayers's fingers dance along the neck of a violin or cello, those same eyes reflect tranquility. He's an early contender for a Best Actor nomination in my book.

While the film leans heavily on Foxx's performance, Downey's portrayal of Lopez is crucial for the audience's access to the violent, rat-infested skid row that Ayers calls home. We feel Lopez's fear as he wades through a sea of angry humanity carrying crack pipes, crude weapons, and a serious chip on their collective shoulder. We also absorb his outrage at the results of the mayor's $50-million-dollar "cleanup" of the mean streets near the Lamp Community, where police officers arrest homeless men for illegal possession of shopping carts. But the most prominent emotion, by far, is guilt.

While the tagline "based on a true story" tends to sow skepticism, The Soloist largely avoids the shortcomings of other fictionalized bio-pics. In reality, there is no silver bullet for mental illness. A hot meal and a roof won't cure what ails someone who is homeless by choice. The well-meaning Lopez had to come to terms with the emotional wall that Ayers constructed over three decades of living on the streets.

Naturally, classical music enthusiasts will find something to like in The Soloist. But to me, the music of this film is its embrace of human frailty and complexity, and its willingness to rest easy in that world.

The Soloist ★★★★✩
Starring Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr. and Catherine Keener. Directed by Joe Wright. Rated PG-13.

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