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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Soloist (The)

When I first saw the title The Soloist it reminded me of a magazine I had found stuffed between the mattress and box springs of my teenage son’s bed several years ago. That came as quite a surprise, and was the first inkling I got that he was not going to be giving me an Octo-mom full of grandchildren. There were other signs, I suppose. I probably ought to have at least wondered if something was a tad different with him from other boys when, at age 12, he asked for a subscription to Elle magazine. At 14, his room had become a shrine to Madonna, and he kissed an autographed 8 x 10 glossy of the singer every night before going to bed. His overuse of “jazz hands” while recounting the events of his day at the dinner table every night should have clinched it, but I was terribly naïve. Okay, so I was a mother in denial, but I figured he was merely going through a phase of adolescence that would pass, much like it did with me after a while back in the day when I wore my hair like Annette Funicello and thought Capri pants were flattering on everyone.

So now, years have passed and I’m resigned to not being a grandmother thanks to my son, who
could have just as easily found a partner who wanted a huge family and insisted they go out and adopt a Brangelina-sized herd of children, but instead, Mr. “Look, Ma, I’m marrying a doctor!” picked out a pediatrician to spend his life with. A pediatrician. Rub my nose in it, will you? My son finds Mr. Right and he is a children’s physician, someone who spends twelve hours or so a day caring for kids and then comes home at night and the last thing he wants to see is another one. Oh, and did I mention that they live in France? I’m convinced that was my son’s idea just so he could be as far away from me as possible so he would not have to listen to my tears about being without grandchildren.

I console myself of this emptiness by going to the movies ~ a lot. That’s how I ended up going to
The Soloist. I had originally decided to boycott the movie because its star, Jamie Foxx (The Kingdom),had made a whole slew of disparaging remarks on his Sirius radio program “The Foxxhole” about ‘tween sensation Miley Cyrus a few weeks back that I thought that was really crossing the line. Now you know these comments had to be bad if they offended me! Mostly, it was the fact that he brought race into the issue, calling her a “little white bitch” and then made fun of her looks and suggested she probably had an STD, stuff like that. If he said things like this about an adult, say Paris Hilton, I wouldn’t blink, (well, in Paris’ case, the STD comment would no doubt be true), but I just don’t think it’s cool to go after a kid, even a super-rich show-biz kid.

So I wasn’t going to see
The Soloist because I was mad at Jamie Foxx, but I do quite like his co-star Robert Downy, Jr. (Tropic Thunder), and so I decided one cancelled out the other and it was best to let bygones be bygones and to give it a try. Well, what can I say? The Soloist is a masterpiece!

Based on a true story about Los Angeles Times’ columnist Steve Lopez and his
relationship with a
schizophrenic homeless musician, Nathaniel Ayers, whom he meets on the street near Skid Row. At first Lopez sees Ayers as simply a human-interest piece ~ the tale of a guy down on his luck, someone who went from being a student at the prestigious Julliard School of Music to now playing a two stringed violin by the side of the road, but then as public interest in the story demands a follow-up, Steve, too, finds himself wanting to know more about Ayers and his background and how to help him achieve his lost potential as a musician.

What follows is an honest and occasionally hard to watch account of homelessness in this country, and how we have dumped the chronically mentally ill into the streets without treatment as budget cuts close hospitals and group homes to care for them. Then they, like Nathaniel, live randomly like animals, seeking food, shelter, affection, and assistance where they find it and if they are able to understand that they need it. In Nathaniel’s case, the idea of living inside is so frightening that when Lopez eventually gets him apartment in a community care facility it becomes almost impossible to coerce Nathaniel inside. The voices in his head won’t let him enter and he is quick to run. But Lopez doesn’t give up, and he finally does manage to get Ayers off the streets and into a safer environment.

The movie works hard to show how Ayers’ fixation on music, especially to Beethoven, creates a
bond between the two men, and once Lopez gives Nathaniel a vintage cello sent in by one of his readers, that bond is cemented forever. As much as I was offended by Mr. Foxx’s off-screen behavior I have to admit that he does an unbelievably good job here creating a character whose stream of consciousness rambling never stops and rarely makes sense (at least to the audience). At the same time, he imbues Nathaniel Ayers with dignity and pride despite his circumstances in the world and makes him a person you want to care about even if he is sometimes coarse and out of control. If Foxx doesn’t win the Academy Award for this performance next February there is simply no justice, and that’s all I have to say about that. Mr. Downey, too, is quite terrific as the daunting reporter who mistakes what Ayers needs most ~ instead of trying to ‘fix’ him, as his character focuses on for most of the film, he finally has a cathartic moment (Oscar-worthy as Supporting Actor) when he realizes that what Ayers simply needs is a friend. This, of course, is the message his ex-wife (Catherine Keener; Genova) has been trying to tell him repeatedly to no avail, but that is the curse of being the ex-wife. Nobody listens to you.

The film has no big dramatic ending because, being based on an actual story, the people involved are still living their lives. Fortunately, because of Lopez’s writings, the mayor of Los Angeles has pledged $50 million to help the homeless in the LA area. Meanwhile Ayers is still playing his music under the freeway overpasses (where the acoustics are best). Steve Lopez is still writing for The Los Angeles Times, but the one big change in both of their lives is that Ayers and Lopez will always be friends. And for the rest of us, with a movie like The Soloist around to remind us, those who see it will never be able to look at a homeless person and not see beyond the label of “homeless” again and instead see the person behind the situation for who he or she might be. No movie could hope to accomplish more than this.

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