It’s a sad day when the word “journalist” is no longer associated with Woodward and Bernstein and Edward R. Murrow, but rather Matt Drudge and Perez Hilton. Instead of viewing reporters as the defenders of the truth, they see gossip mongers and slime who will do anything for a story. Paramount’s new release, “The Soloist” tells the real-life story of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez offers the one element journalists need to regain their good name: redemption.
“The Soloist” which is based of Lopez’s novel of the same name, is about a series of columns Lopez wrote in 2005 about a homeless man named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. Lopez, played in the film by Robert Downey Jr., meets Ayers under a statue of Beethoven in Los Angeles; Ayers is playing a violin with only two strings. As Lopez soon finds out, Ayers was a musical prodigy who attended prestigious New York music academy Julliard before becoming schizophrenic.
Ayers, played by Jamie Foxx at his finest, is at first just a column for Lopez, but then becomes something more: a friend. Through his time spent with Ayers, Lopez continued on to launch a crusade against homelessness in L.A.’s Skid Row.
“The Soloist” is a wonderfully cohesive piece: the acting, cinematography and plot are all there. It’s an unbelievable real-life story brought to the big screen in an unbelievable, real-life way. Robert Downey Jr. is continuing his comeback following “Iron Man” and “Tropic Thunder” in 2008 and Jamie Foxx gave a beautiful performance that is sure to earn him another Oscar nod. The repeated, wide shots of L.A. show that, more than this is a story about Lopez or Ayers, it is a story about the city of Los Angeles.
The movie adaptation could have followed Lopez’s lead and picked up the fight against homelessness, but instead chose to chase after a medley of other causes instead; letting visuals of drug-riddled Skid Row during Lopez’s night spent on the streets with Ayers speak for themselves.
Written by: Susannah Grant
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener
Running time: 109 minutes
Seen at: Loews Boston Common
In a curious scene, a television is shown airing news footage of Hurricane Katrina, then the camera zooms back to reveal a woman ignoring the television to read Lopez’s column about Ayers. She proceeds to send her cello to Lopez as a gift for Ayers, but the scene felt like a criticism of the American public for caring more about fluff columns versus actual crises.
The sentiment was made clearer earlier in the film when a fellow L.A. Times reporter shared his aggravation that a deep investigative Page One story he wrote received almost no response, while a column Lopez wrote about a bicycle crash he was in led to worried fan mail about his safety. Lopez’s ex-wife Mary (Catherine Keener) echoed similar sentiments to Lopez when she said a story about him giving blood as a follow-up to his bicycle accident was sure to sell papers.
The criticism seemed to undermine the point of the film. Yes, it is entirely true that it is important for the American public to not ignore the larger issues at hand (i.e. the current economic state, the wars the United States is engaged in, the still struggling survivors of Hurricane Katrina) for the sake of a human interest piece. But the crux of “The Soloist” is the human interest piece and the good that it does for Ayers and the city of L.A., so the filmmaker’s criticism feels hypocritical.
Robert Downey Jr.’s loveable cynicism won him hearts and a comeback in 2008’s “Iron Man” but it works against him here. The Steve Lopez of the film is different than the Steve Lopez in real life. In the film he is a broken man: a divorcee who doesn’t talk to his son. His home is less of a home and more a pile of unpacked boxes. He is heartless and careless; telling his ex-wife he never loved anything the way Ayers loves music. Whoever made the decision to turn the happy, settled-in-his-life husband and father character of real-life Lopez into this unhappy creature did the film a disservice. Downey’s cynicism makes the implied transformation of Lopez through his experiences with Ayers seem too insincere, and the transition is far too insignificant a part of the movie.
One of the most beautiful shots in the film is when Ayers and Lopez are granted access to an orchestra rehearsal at Disney Hall. The orchestra starts playing Beethoven (Ayers’ favorite) and the camera zooms in close to Foxx’s face. His eyes close, and a myriad of colors dance across the screen for the rest of Beethoven’s symphony. The audience is seeing through the eyes of Ayers the way he views music. It is one of the most intimate moments experienced in cinema with a camera because the audience is at once one with the character.
The story of Lopez and Ayers’ relationship is truly beautiful, whether it be told through film, book or newspaper. But Ayers’ line in regards to his music, “Do you think I can be good again?”, resonates on so many levels deeper than the obvious. Do you think journalists can be good again? Do you think America can be good again? The film ends with hope and a simple answer: Yes.