By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published April 30, 2009
While not a perfect film, “The Soloist” is a movie with a lot of heart. It is beautifully filmed, but the timing can be slow at times. The friendship at the center of the movie is a memorable one, however, and the film contains valuable messages about the healing power of companionship and the value of patience and understanding.
Directed by Joe Wright, and based on a true story, “The Soloist” centers on the friendship that develops between journalist Steve Lopez and homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers Jr. In 2005, Lopez is a columnist at the Los Angeles Times. Out searching for story ideas one day, he runs across a street musician, Ayers, who is coaxing amazing music out of a battered violin with only two strings. Lopez starts a conversation and is startled by Ayers’ references to the Julliard School. After some research, he learns that Ayers is something of a prodigy and had been a gifted student at the prestigious school. Ayers, however, is also afflicted with schizophrenia, and his illness eventually resulted in an inability to function at school and a break with his family. When Lopez meets him, Ayers is living on the street. The man survives with a curious combination of cunning street smarts and utter disconnection from reality.
Lopez’s articles about Ayers meet with a very positive response. The public is taken with the story of the troubled musician, and the two men’s lives become more and more intertwined. Lopez tries to help Ayers by connecting him with a community center, finding him an apartment, and introducing him to a new music teacher. He eventually learns, however, that providing help is not as simple as it might seem. Ayers’ illness makes him prone to paranoia, frustration and anger, which at times make it impossible to be around him. Lopez must also contend with his own demons. He has a long history of keeping people at a distance, and having a new friend that relies on him so heavily is hard for the journalist.
Ultimately, though, both men benefit from their friendship. Ayers becomes more settled, re-connects with his family, and has a greater outlet for his musical expression. Lopez grows more receptive and more open to all the people in his life. One of the great lessons in the film is that we can find connections with and learn from the most unexpected people in our lives.
The success of the film hinges upon the performances of the two leads. As Steve Lopez, Robert Downey Jr. has the more difficult and subtle task, portraying a man who appears to be friendly and outgoing, but who truly lives in a shell. Downey does a fantastic job of showing how that shell begins to soften as Lopez begins to accept his own limitations. Jamie Foxx takes on the role of Nathaniel Ayers in a tour de force performance, inhabiting the character completely. He shows how Ayers can switch from slyly humorous man-child to a frighteningly disturbed individual in an instant.
Although the relationship between Lopez and Ayers is at the heart of “The Soloist,” the stories going on in the periphery often seem even more compelling. With the film set on the streets of Los Angeles, the characters function in a world inhabited by the thousands of homeless people who live on the streets of the city. The scenes in and around the community center are both enlightening and heartbreaking. One of the most forceful messages in the film comes from the simple, straightforward way these men and women are portrayed. The movie approaches them in the same way Lopez does: They are neither saints nor martyrs nor villains. They are simply men and women, living their lives, often with the burden of a debilitating mental illness or addiction. In watching these men and women, one can easily imagine that their stories are just as interesting.
Lopez’s frustration at how difficult it is to help his friend is multiplied by every individual out on the streets. One of the most memorable conversations in “The Soloist” takes place between Lopez and David, the young man who runs the community center. David, calmly and coolly played by Nelsan Ellis, tells Lopez that he cannot help Ayers unless Ayers wants to be helped. Lopez runs through various scenarios, all designed to force Ayers to begin medication and live in a way that Lopez wants him to live. David has clearly seen it all before. His refusal to force Ayers is the right answer, one that Lopez eventually understands. The film gives no easy answers because there are no easy answers. Medication, a place to sleep, even religion are not enough to make Ayers’ life “normal” in the way Lopez would like it to be.
One of the most consistent themes running through “The Soloist” is Ayers’ love of music and his devotion to his calling. The music in the film is heartbreakingly beautiful, and the film’s director does an amazing job of showing how deeply it affects the man on a profoundly emotional level.
“The Soloist” explores the intricacies of friendship, the barriers we put up in our lives, and the misconceptions even the most well-meaning of us experience. It is the story of two men who learn to trust and depend on each other and, through their friendship, on the other people in their lives.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.