Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Soloist

When a man helps another man, is it an act of generosity or an act of self-redemption? Does generosity extend beyond merely handing out help to actually influencing the person to evolve into someone that suits our definition of a well-adjusted individual? These are the questions that confront the audience as they watch The Soloist.

There are so many things to like in The Soloist. There’s Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey, Jr., Catherine Keener, Atonement director Joe Wright, and In Her Shoes screenwriter Susannah Grant. Too bad it doesn’t live up to its promise. It could have been a very powerful movie about homelessness in Los Angeles or about schizophrenia - if the movie had only focused on either one. True, the main protagonist, Nathaniel Ayers, (Jamie Foxx) is suffering both from the aforementioned mental condition and homelessness; however, the way it played up didn’t allow the viewers to fully empathize with either of Ayers’ plight.

Nathaniel Ayers is a homeless man in LA’s Skid Row when he was accidentally discovered by Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), an LA Times columnist, while playing an old broken violin in front of Beethoven’s statue in Downtown LA.

Bored and looking for a good story material, Steve engages Nathaniel in a brief conversation and he discovers that Nathaniel used to be a Cello scholar at Juiliard, who, due to his developing mental illness, dropped out after only two terms. Patiently, he starts to interview Nathaniel and eventually traces his sister and part of his history. His stories start appearing on LA Times and one reader, drawn to the sad story of Nathaniel, sends her old Cello for Nathaniel to start playing again.

Over time, Steve starts spending more and more time with Nathaniel. His desire to make Nathaniel get better and resume functioning normally again begin to influence his judgment and he forgets what he is to Nathaniel.

For Nathaniel, Steve is just a friend. He is nothing more than just someone who is there to listen to his ramblings and his life story during his lucid intervals.

This conflicted view on how one individual plays his part in a relationship, be it friendship or otherwise, has already been effectively tackled in writer Susannah Grant’s In Her Shoes with Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette. This time, the characters are based on real life and the limitations of the real story is clearly evident in the limited “cinematic” moments that made the film appear too forced while at the same time wanting in high emotion that the movie of this kind surely needs.

Over time, the film tells how Nathaniel developed his illness but the audience just couldn’t care less. It is as confused as Nathaniel. Or probably, it was the director’s intent.

What the film lacks in effective storytelling is supplanted by the excellent performances turned in by the cast. The climax is quite most noteworthy for Foxx’s and Downey’s performances more than its suggestive intent. Scenes involving LA’s homeless are so moving especially when you learn later on that those were actually real people.

Now I know why this movie got bumped off from its original December release.

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