The Soloist

  The Soloist
  Robert Downey, Jr., Jaime Foxx

  3 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

When I commuted in New York City in the 80s, there was a musician who worked the urine soaked subways for change. He sported tin foil antenna in his Afro, a Technicolor vest, bug-eyed Bootsy Collins sunglasses, and called himself "The Man from Galaxy Seven." His game was to board a train just before it departed, whip out his baritone sax, and bleat like a scatological Charlie Parker until the terrified passengers capitulated, throwing him money in order to stop the torture. The Daily News eventually exposed The Man From Galaxy Seven as a lucid working musician who took the train into the city from his summer home in tawny Westchester every day and made just as much money panhandling as he did playing steady gigs.

The Man from Galaxy Seven played the role of a troubled, down and out musician and profited mightily from it. In "The Soloist," Jaime Foxx plays Nathaniel Ayres, a schizophrenic violinist who lives for music rather than money. I reacted to Foxx's peculiar performance the same way I did to The Man from Galaxy Seven. I wanted to give Foxx a few dollars to go away. Luckily, "The Soloist" isn't a one man show. Robert Downey, Jr. co-stars as L.A. Times reporter Steve Lopez, Ayers' mentor and the film's narrator. Downey doesn't disappoint, delving deeply into his character's mission to save a lost denizen of the streets overflowing with God given talent.

The storyline follows the unlikely relationship between Lopez and Ayres. Lopez is looking for a new story angle when he hears Ayers, a homeless Skid Row inhabitant, playing a two-string violin. Ayres claims he was trained at Julliard, and Lopez smells a riches to rags story until he researches Ayres and can't find his name among any of the graduating classes. When he's told Ayers attended but never graduated, Lopez sets out to tell the story of a promising musician whose career was short circuited by mental illness. As Ayres begins to trust - and admire - Lopez, a bond grows between the two men. Lopez becomes determined to help Ayres achieve his dream of playing before an audience, but slowly realizes the biggest obstacle standing in Ayres path is Ayres himself.
I didn't really buy the notion that Lopez's mentoring of Ayers monumentally changed the mismatched friend's lives. Yes, Lopez gets Ayers to come to grips with living within four walls instead of the wide open streets, and Lopez is handsomely rewarded for his efforts, landing a book deal and a journalism award. But Ayers' mental condition doesn't change one note, which flies in the face of a tidy, happy Hollywood ending. The notion that everyone (except Lopez) believes that Ayers knows what's best for Ayres is troubling and irresponsible. If that was the case, Charles Manson would be making music with The Beach Boys even after massacring Sharon Tate. Whenever the pressure mounts, Ayres hears a chorus of voices in his head that whisper, "I'll be here to protect you from their eyes." We're not talking about a group as amiable as the King Family here. Jim Gordon, for my money the greatest drummer ever, heard voices that eventually told him to kill his mother. Instead of obeying his mom - who told him to put down the hammer he was about to use to bash in her noggin, Jim listened to the voices. He's been in a nut hut since 1983 and it's unlikely he'll ever drum again. Not all schizophrenics are violent, but there's a moment in "The Soloist" when Ayres explodes in full-fisted fury that indicates someone should be perched on his shoulder like Blackbeard's parrot. He needed to be monitored closely, rather than being allowed to make the self-diagnosis that he was as gentle as a powder puff. He's definitely a not ready for prime time player, but we never get a clear picture of Ayers' demons. Whenever he's hit with a bout of schizophrenia, you hear the voices, see him curl up in a corner or freeze like a deer about to be flattened by an SUV. That's it? When he's listening to music, we see vivid colors. Wait a minute. I saw dazzling colors in the 70s. Maybe Ayres isn't schizophrenic after all; he just needs a reboot of some brown acid. What I see is a shy, child-like prodigy who couldn't handle being on stage; Harry Nilsson, Nick Drake, and Carley Simon all suffered from crippling stage fright. Writers Susan Grant and Steve Lopez took great pains to label Ayres schizophrenic without exploring what kept him that way.

One factor that slows the action is the pointed political positioning that shines a big honking spotlight on the plight of the homeless. It's a noble cause, but no one likes getting hit over the head with a sledgehammer of guilt. The sound of one hand clapping goes to director Joe Wright, who insisted on filming the street scenes in L.A.'s Skid Row and employed some of its more colorful inhabitants as extras. The Lamp Community Center doubles as an allegorical Circle of Hell from "Dante's Inferno" with incoherent crack heads, mumbling drunks and territorial lost souls.

I have as much tolerance for Jaime Foxx's dramatic acting skills as Lincoln did for bullets. He turns Ayres' into an imitation of Carl Spackler, Billy Murray's gopher chasing maintenance man in "Caddyshack." He had a can't miss back story when he played Ray Charles; in "The Soloist" he's still playing a real life character, but Ayres is far less known, so Foxx has to rely on his acting skills, which are negligible. Ayres best scenes don't have Foxx in them. They belong to child actor Justin Martin, who plays Ayres during his formative years before the voices, back when he used to spend every waking hour absorbing Beethoven's music in the basement of his mom's apartment. Even with the tutelage of Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Ben Hong, who showed Foxx how to fake it, Foxx acts more like the neighborhood kid who used to make fun of the slow kids by imitating them, rather than a genius who cracked under pressure.

Like Foxx, Robert Downey has played a character in the same profession before, portraying real-life reporter Paul Avery in 2007's "Zodiac." Unlike Foxx, Downey rounds out his character with hints of journalistic genius, personal faults (he's a lousy husband), and moments of head strong determination that are balanced by doubt: "I love you, Steve turns into you failed me, Steve, turns into very bad things. That's been my limited experience."  In short, Downey makes Lopez a believable human being, unlike Foxx's cliched classical music caricature of Blind Lemon Chitlin'. Any actor who can survive not one, but two potentially embarrassing scenes involving coyote urine should be worshiped.

The obscenely talented Catherine Kener plays Lopez's managing editor and ex-wife Mary Weston. Mary warns Lopez that he won't be able to stop himself from exploiting Ayres. Sadly, she's right. The short scene at the awards event where Mary gets drunk and embarrasses Lopez in front of his colleagues is as disturbing as any of more long-winded verbal tennis matches Lopez has with Ayres. It's Mary who finally puts the most descriptive tag on what Ayres is trying to achieve - "grace." Kener is tragically underused, as is character actor Stephen Root, who plays grumpy old school journalist Curt. Root appears in only two scenes. Office wise gal Leslie (comedian Rachael Harris, the Quaker Oates Mini-Delights lady in the commercials), is only in one.

In a film that deals the heavy hand of homelessness and illness, I was amused by the running Neil Diamond joke. While contemplating his next article, Lopez listens to Diamond's version of "Mr. Bojangles." I hated the previous eight million versions of the song, but Diamond's version (which I'd somehow missed) had a kitschy oomph. When Ayres moves into his apartment, Lopez opens up the medicine cabinet and finds an 8x10 of Neil Diamond staring back at him:

Lopez: What's this?
Ayres: I thought it was you.   

The Diamond triple play is completed following Lopez and Ayres' violent confrontation over his willingness to being labeled schizophrenic and having his sister act as his guardian. As Ayres takes to isolation and mumbling and Lopez takes to a half dozen shots in a bar, the song playing in the background is Diamond's "Forever in Blue Jeans."  

Extra Solos...

"The Soloist" offers a number of effective and informative featurettes. "An Unlikely Friendship: Making the Soloist" showcases interviews with the cast, director Joe Wright, and producers Gary Foster and Russ Krasnoff, who discuss the challenges of orchestrating the film. Downey's biggest concern (and rightfully so) was how Ayres would be portrayed. "We've all seen crazy gone wrong," he says cautiously. Foxx's comments shed some light on his off-the-mark performance: "The biggest challenge was letting it go. Getting back to Jaime Foxx." Next time, Jaime, don't be afraid to dive in a little deeper.

The real John Lopez and Nathaniel Ayres are interviewed for "Kindness, Courtesy and Respect: Mr. Ayres and Mr. Lopez." Ayres is a lot more dapper and coherent than the film would lead you to believe, while Lopez isn't the scintillating conversationalist and quick wit Downey makes him out to be. Jennifer Ayres, Nathaniel's sister, offers an enlightening observation about her brother: "The best time to communicate with him is when you want to talk music."

Not all cartoons are funny. "Beth's Story" is the animated two-minute story of an orphaned girl who finds her voice painting, but through a series of tragic events she winds up homeless: "She asked for work, she asked for money. Then one day she stopped asking for anything." It's a powerful, sad message about homelessness.

"The Soloist" has Downey and Foxx's star power, but a film about a homeless prodigy of a different type that I reviewed in May 2008 called "The Resurrection of the Champ" packs a more coherent wallop, and features Samuel Jackson at the top of his game. So hint, hint, check it out.

Robert Downey turns the monotone, unexciting Robert Lopez into a caring, compassionate character. Foxx's Ayres is nowhere as interesting as the real life socially challenged McCoy, but there's enough in the story of one man attempting to reach out to another to make "The Soloist" a worthwhile watch.

Robert Downey, Jr... Your next Oscar awaits. Jaime Foxx...The Man from Galaxy Seven called and said your saxophone is ready.

1 Comment

I found this after watching The Soloist and noticing the N Diamond refs. I was curious about it and googled it.

I came to know ND as a kid listening to my dad's reel to reel. He had recorded all kinds of 60's and 70's music when he was in the alert shack in Vietnam, flying for the USAF. All the pilots wrote home for LP collections and it became a wierd pre-Itunes kind of thing.

An 8 inch reel of audio tape can carry 4-6 hours of play. He came home when I was 3 with 100 reel to reel tapes. My mom says he never liked music until someone shot at his airplane.

I liked all the old ND stuff, disliked all the newer stuff, ie "Coming to America" sucks. But "Brooklyn Roads" is poetry.

That was decades ago, but I always notice and enjoy the older ND when played.

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