The Soloist (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS (I have to give away the ending.)
This movie should have hit one out of the park. It should have made us cry and leap for joy. But it does not truly lift us up.
The story is simple enough, Nathaniel Ayers, a gifted young African American musician, rises from his poor surroundings to attend Juilliard, but is befallen by crippling mental illness which causes him to leave school, and for years afterward lives the life of a homeless person in Los Angeles, where he is befriended by Steve Lopez, a newpaper columnist.
Lopez tries to help Ayers first by providing him with a new cello sent in by a caring reader to replace the dilapidated one (with only two remaining strings) he used to play, then by trying to get Ayers to go to a homeless shelter to see about getting a place to stay off the streets, and more importantly believes Lopez, to get some medical attention to deal with Ayers' likely schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder. But Ayers is extremely resistant to both those ideas.
Jamie Foxx plays Ayers and Robert Downey Jr. is L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, upon whose book is film is based. I enjoyed Downey's performance as the confused and frustrated Lopez more than that of Foxx. I realize this is based on a true story but with Foxx's comedy background on In Living Color and the fact the movie often dresses Ayers in what Roger Ebert calls "carnival clown clothing" it made the character less authentic to me. None of the other homeless people depicted in the film dressed as oddly as Ayers. I don't recall anyone else wearing anything approaching the silvery coat - what I call the Lost in Space jacket - that he wears when we first meet him. I must admit he looked like a buffoon. (This MAY be exactly what he wore in real life, but for purposes of this dramatic story, which is not a documentary, I think they should have dressed Ayers in something just a bit more subdued, but still authentic for a homeless person. The end credits even state that many things - people, events, places - have been altered or changed for the purposes of telling this story, so why not this costuming detail as well?)
The other problem I had with this film is with Ayers himself. The film does not make clear whether or not he was ever properly diagnosed. There is an image of him undergoing electric shock treatment, but was that a real memory or just a hallucination? He appears to be schizophrenic, but is that what he suffers from? At one point Lopez pleads with a homeless caseworker at the center Ayers attends that perhaps all Ayers needs is two weeks hospital confinement for doctors to find a drug treatment that will help him, and the caseworker basically responds that drugs aren't the answer to homelessness. In Ayers specific case, I say bullshit. There are times Ayers is fairly lucid, and then times when he is muttering a mile a minute and almost bouncing off the walls (at one point he is running through heavy traffic trying to clean up cigarette butts, oblivious to the rushing cars). Even worse, when Lopez tries to make Ayers' sister his legal guardian - something they obviously talked about beforehand - Ayers not only balks at signing the forms, he hits Lopez twice and threatens to kill Lopez if he calls him a schizophrenic (it was printed on the forms) or tries to take away his freedom. I'm sorry, but this man NEEDS medication.
The movie ends almost as it began. Yes, Ayers is not sleeping on sidewalks anymore but in an apartment Lopex arranged for him to have. He's still playing his cello, apparently at the homeless center. But it never states that he is on medication for his mental illness. He is apparently happy right now, but as the movie shows, he can snap at the slightest provocation and you won't know what hit you. I stated at the beginning the movie doesn't hit one out of the park; it doesn't lift us up. I have to say that as inspiring as Ayers' story may be, the fact that he is still suffers crippling mental illess is really a shame. And with all the positive attention from the original newspaper columns, the book and this movie, he should have received treatment. The movie doesn't lift us up, because Ayers himself hasn't yet been truly lifted up.
As unsatisfying a film as The Soloist was, it does call attention, and rightly so, to the epidemic of homelessness in Los Angeles and this country. The scenes in the infamous L.A. Skid Row just bring you to your knees. It looked like outtakes from Escape From New York with all the garbage, discarded items, including old cars, trash and bedraggled people; all that was missing were mortar craters in the streets. A $50 million dollar effort was started by the city in 2006 to address the many needs of Skid Row. Based on those images, I wonder if that is enough.