May 16, 2009 -- “The Soloist” should have been a great movie with all the talent that went into it, but it doesn't quite work the way it should. The problem seems to be in the basic storyline. What are we to make of the film's main character, Nathaniel Ayers (played by Jaime Foxx of “The Kingdom”) a gifted musician who is homeless and schizophrenic? After watching this character for most of the film, I still couldn't make any sense of him. At times, he seems harmless enough, at other times, he is downright frightening. Maybe if I knew more about schizophrenia his character might have more appeal for me.
Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr. of “Iron Man”), hears a sweet sounding melody one day and is drawn to violin music being played by Ayers on a worn-out old violin missing all but two strings. He strikes up a conversation with Ayers and finds out that the homeless man once attended the famed Juilliard School of music. Gradually, the two men become friends and Lopez writes a series of newspaper columns about Ayers. Lopez doesn't want the responsibility of coping with Ayers' mental illness when it becomes clear there is no cure for his condition. Eventually, Lopez decides to take a chance on Ayers and become a true friend to him, regardless of his condition. For one thing, he admires Ayers' passion for music. Lopez himself doesn't have any similar kind of passion for anything. Los Angeles Times readers, moved by Ayers' condition, donate musical instruments to him. Lopez gets him moved into an apartment run by the Lamp Community and advocacy group that offers services to the homeless. He also tries to get Ayers' musical career back on track, but there is only so far that Ayers will go in his condition. He does make some progress, however, and Ayers is at last able attend a musical concert.
At one point in the film, Lopez suggests a psychiatric evaluation and treatment for Ayers, but this is turned down. At another point in the film, Lopez tries to establish Ayers' sister (played by LisaGay Hamilton) as Ayers' legal guardian. As soon as Ayers reads the word schizophrenia in the document, he flies into a rage and threatens to kill Lopez. The fact is, there are a variety of treatments for schizophrenia, including anti psychotic drugs. It certainly was a reasonable suggestion by Lopez and there was no good explanation why it wasn't followed. The argument being made by the film is that Ayers is functioning in society on his own level and that is good enough. To hell with his potential as a human being and as a musician. I think I could be sold on this argument, but the film didn't convince me. The argument is pathetically weak. I was surprised at the end of the film to find out this is based on a true story. If the real Nathaniel Ayers is not being treated for his condition, there are probably good reasons for his lack of treatment. Whatever those reasons are, they are barely mentioned in the movie.
There is no clear consensus among experts as to what causes schizophrenia, or even what the symptoms are. Schizophrenia may just be a catch-all word to describe a whole range of mental disorders which may, or may not be closely related. In the film Ayers displays some symptoms attributed to schizophrenia, such as hearing voices, having trouble distinguishing inner thoughts from external events, and rambling, incoherent speech. Because of his strange, sometimes frightening behavior, Ayers does not come off as a very sympathetic character as schizophrenic mathematician John Nash did in the film “A Beautiful Mind.” In that film Nash's illness was illustrated by visual images, which make his affliction easier to understand. In “The Soloist,” we hear the voices which Ayers hears, but they are just voices. They don't help us understand what is happening in his mind. We understand he is confused and scared, but that is about it. If the movie is trying to help us understand what schizophrenia is, it fails in the attempt.
The movie does do a good job of depicting homelessness in Los Angeles. A number of homeless people are shown in the film, some of them are actors and some are actual homeless people who have parts in the film. Although not actually filmed on skid row, it feels authentic in its depiction of a homeless community. Robert Downey Jr. and Jaime Foxx both give excellent performances. That is not the problem with the movie. The main problem I had with this movie is the frustration of trying to relate to Nathaniel Ayers, who is emotionally inaccessible, and trying to make some sense of the illness of schizophrenia. This film rates a C.
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