Saturday, May 9, 2009

Surprisingly Gifted: The Soloist

Preconceptions are dangerous. This is what I learned from The Soloist, a film about a Los Angeles Times reporter who meets a homeless man playing a two-stringed violin and finds out that the Skid Row inhabitant used to be a Julliard cellist. Jamie Foxx plays the homeless musician, Nathanial Ayers, and Robert Downey Jr plays Times columnist Steve Lopez, whose discovery that a muttering, shopping-cart-pushing Ayers was once a musical prodigy is merely surprise No. 1. Based on a book by Lopez and adapted for the screen by Susannah Grant, The Soloist is less about Ayers’ one-time musical promise than about his even-harder-to-believe contentment with his hard-knock life. Yet if you’re assuming that my aforementioned lesson on prejudice comes from the drama of The Soloist, you’ve guessed wrong. Sure, the story of Lopez and Ayers reminds us to be cautious with our first impressions, but my tutorial on the riskiness of bias comes directly from Paramount Pictures.

See, it was Paramount that began promoting The Soloist last summer in preparation for a nationwide theatrical debut in late November 2008. Armed with a heavy-hitters-only release date, The Soloist was going to be an Oscar contender. At least, Paramount thought so, and with the film’s Oscar-caliber stars, its based-on-a-true-story hook and its socially conscious theme, it was hard to disagree. (Heck, the film is about a mentally ill character – an Oscar mainstay if there ever was one.) But a funny thing happened on the way to the Academy Awards. Weeks before the scheduled premiere, Paramount cancelled The Soloist’s November debut, not for reshooting or re-editing but simply so it could release the film in the far less competitive (and far less awards-friendly) month of April. The implicit message of the postponement was so explicit that it might as well have been tacked on to the front of the film as a disclaimer: “Warning: What you are about to see won’t be nominated for any Oscars.” And on that point, Paramount is correct. And on that point, Paramount is responsible.

To be clear, The Soloist is far from perfect. This is, after all, a film that regards flapping pigeons with the reverence that John Ashcroft reserves for soaring eagles. This is a film that includes not one but two pointless gross-out scenes involving urine. This is a film about a man’s emotional connection to Beethoven that never quite uses Beethoven emotionally. This is a film that splashes colors across the screen ala 2001: A Space Odyssey to questionable effect. On the other hand, The Soloist possesses more grace than The Reader and more realism than Frost/Nixon (two Best Picture nominees in last year’s Oscar race), not to mention two incredible performances by Foxx and Downey that are superior to any of the Oscar-nominated turns in Doubt. Seriously. In fact, Foxx and Downey might just give the best performances of their careers here. Yeah, seriously! But good luck getting folks to say that, now that Paramount’s handling of the film has left it branded it with a scarlet letter.

The Soloist is a hamburger first touted for Spago that became relegated to the drive-thru window at McDonald’s. We’d be fooling ourselves to pretend that the context doesn’t shape the content. And so on that note, let me go no further without pausing to offer that perhaps The Soloist isn’t as impressive as I’m making it sound. Perhaps, at this point, Joe Wright’s film is the beneficiary of my low expectations, because after the November-to-April switcheroo, I expected mediocrity. But you’d have a hard time convincing me that The Soloist fails to clear that bar on the strength of its lead actors alone. Performing opposite Downey, who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination a few months back for playing a method actor who warns against going “full retard” when portraying mentally handicapped characters, Foxx demonstrates both tremendous commitment and impressive restraint. His schizophrenic Ayers is impressively consistent and convincingly unsettled. He’s a colorful character, yes, by costuming alone, but one only needs to imagine Robin Williams’ interpretation of the role to appreciate Foxx’s subtlety. Foxx plays Ayers as a man, not as a condition or as a caricature, which is something I wouldn’t say about Best Actor nominees Brad Pitt (The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button) or Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon).

Then there’s Downey, whose performance is notable at least because it’s so rare to see him playing the straight man. Downey’s Lopez doesn’t possess the brilliant dialogue of his Kirk Lazarus (Tropic Thunder), or the uber-swagger of his Tony Stark (Iron Man), or the effervescence of his Paul Avery (Zodiac), which means that as far as Downey performances go, this one isn’t much fun. But the innate magnetism that we’ve come to expect from Downey is there, and then some. Through Lopez’s exasperation turned desperation when Ayers goes missing, or in scenes in which Lopez quietly considers his responsibility (or lack thereof) in Ayers’ wellbeing, we get a precious glimpse of Downey beyond his trademark smirks, and it’s a sight to see. The character might not be wonderfully drawn, but Downey’s embodiment of the character is nothing short of perfect. Same goes for Catherine Keener in a small but significant part as Lopez’s ex-wife.

Of course, purists will note that the real Lopez doesn’t have an ex-wife (he’s married), and I have no doubt that Grant has taken other liberties with the facts. But from an outsider’s perspective, The Soloist rings true. Grant is to be commended for realizing that the very genuine friendship between Lopez and Ayers is remarkable in its own right and needs no perfect ending – not for Ayers, whose mental illness is no magic trick, not for Lopez, who learns that good intentions have limits. Shot on L.A.’s inimitable Skid Row, which feels dangerous even in broad daylight, The Soloist has authenticity where it counts. And, yeah, better films have been ignored by the Oscars. But worse films have been buried in an avalanche of golden statuettes. The tragedy would be for The Soloist to be ignored altogether. So before you take Paramount’s suggestion of all that The Soloist is not, give it a fair chance. See it with open eyes. See it for what it is. It’ll probably surprise you.

1 comment:

James Yates said...

Yes, everyone, even the most passionate film scholars, knows that movie studios look at the bottom line more than anything.

However, the fact that Paramount was so obvious about the last-minute postponement is such a glaring mistake. Sure, "The Soloist" might have been lost in the shuffle, but with the positives you've pointed out, one would like to imagine a studio thinking "Gee, we're so proud of this film, let's get it out ASAP."

Of course, this is naive, but it would be refreshing.