Remember when Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle, “I knew Jack Kennedy. . . . Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”? Well, I felt a little that way when it came to reviewing “The Soloist.”
I could back up and write all this in the reviewer’s traditional third person, but that feels disingenuous. After all, I do know Steve Lopez, whose wonderful Los Angeles Times columns and later book about his unlikely friendship with a gifted but deeply troubled street musician started everything. And I work with Lopez at The Times, which, in an unprecedented gesture, offered its newsroom as a set and has in general bound itself to this movie with remarkable fealty.
More than that, as a Washington Post reporter when “All the President’s Men” came out, I’ve experienced working at a newspaper when its exploits became movie material. I know what to expect from this kind of wild ride and, just as important, what to disregard.
So while it was initially jolting to see the tall, laconic Lopez portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. -- not the likeliest person to play him -- as a short, voluble bundle of energy, I got over it. Did Marlon Brando resemble Napoleon? Did John Wayne look anything like Genghis Khan? It’s time to move on.
I also knew we were a long way from the early days of the movie business, when Hollywood ran roughshod over books, ending an early sound version of “Moby-Dick,” for instance, with Ahab killing the whale and coming home to his girlfriend. Really.
If “The Soloist” had been made in those days, Jamie Foxx’s Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a gifted musician battling the horrors of paranoid schizophrenia, would have been cured in a trice and ended up playing a gala concert to a Disney Hall standing ovation. So I am nothing if not grateful for the small favors this film provides.
But despite all I know I should feel, I can’t help being mightily frustrated by “The Soloist.” I can’t help resenting that it suffered the death of a thousand cuts and, more frustrating still, that all this happened in the name of doing good in the world, of making the story’s powerful lessons more palatable to a wider audience.
But by consistently and relentlessly overplaying everything, by settling for standard easy emotions when singular and heartfelt was called for, by pushing forward when they should have pulled back, director Joe Wright and screenwriter Susannah Grant have made the story mean less, not more. Instead of enhancing “The Soloist’s” appeal, they have come close to eliminating it.
Fortunately, “The Soloist’s” complex story is not easily destroyed. It begins in 2005 when Lopez, on the lookout as always for a good column idea, hears a violin on the streets of downtown L.A. and makes Ayers’ acquaintance. The violin turns out to be short a few strings, and the player turns out to have an astonishing back story: He was once upon a time a cellist enrolled in New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music, a classmate, in fact, of the celebrated Yo-Yo Ma.
As played by Downey, the film’s Lopez is such a newsroom rascal and rogue I half expected to hear the Phil Spector-produced “He’s a Rebel” played every time he appeared on screen. His (fictional) ex-wife, Mary Weston (Catherine Keener), has her hands full as his editor, and he’s aware that the business he’s in might be disappearing.
Once he fully realizes Ayers’ history, shown on film in overdramatic flashbacks, Lopez dedicates himself to trying to improve the musician’s quality of life in a variety of ways. But wouldn’t you know it, the newspaperman has things to learn about life as well -- and dealing with the difficult Ayers (capably played by Foxx) turns out to be just the learning experience he needed.
If this sounds trite and contrived, that unfortunately is what “The Soloist” has done with the sensitive, nuanced reality of Lopez’s story by forcing it to fit into the Procrustean bed of Hollywood convention.
Over and over again, small details are added or subtracted from the story, tiny things, really, like who donated a cello for Ayers to play (the movie says a kindly arthritic lady, the book a corporate chief executive) and whether Ayers and Lopez dramatically pushed Ayers’ cart all the way to Disney Hall on a crucial day or realistically stashed it in a convenient garage. None of these things make a difference individually, but in sum they point to a weakness for the obvious and the simplistic that undermine any attempt to do justice to the complexities of the real story.
More than that, director Wright seems to relish overdoing whatever he can, not surprising for those who remember how he treated the Bennett family in his “Pride & Prejudice.” So a cellist who tries to help Ayers can’t be just a good person, he has to be clumsily religious. When Ayers gets to hear a concert in Disney Hall, we can’t just experience the moment, we have to watch a psychedelic light show left over from the Jefferson Airplane playing the Fillmore. And we can’t simply enjoy this story for what it is, we have to suffer through bogus and unnecessary slapstick moments like Lopez slipping on his own urine during a hospital visit.
The same dynamic is in force during scenes set on skid row and in Lamp Community, where Ayers now lives. These sequences were not casually undertaken -- Wright insisted that real skid row residents be used as extras -- but though that area has been a hell on Earth in real life, “The Soloist” is still determined to make everything feel worse than it is. As much as I wanted this film to succeed, these kind of missteps and excesses were a price I was unwilling to pay.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use, language
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In general release