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Since Ingmar Bergman's 1962 film, "Through a Glass, Darkly", the 2009
film "The Soloist" is one of the two most accurate portrayals of
schizophrenia, from the point of view of the mentally ill person and of
people who want to interact with the ill person. I speak from
experience. David Cronenberg's film, "Spider", is the other.
I was disappointed in my two favourite critics, James Berardinelli and Roger Ebert, each of who gave "The Soloist" only 62½%.
Berardinelli says, "The Soloist is afflicted with a lack of passion. The story lacks a strong trajectory; it meanders, seemingly unsure of precisely what it wants to do and say and where it wants to go." Actually, that is the reality of schizophrenia. One never knows what is going to happen next. There are many setbacks. He also says, "The soundtrack supplies multiple, overlapping voices. The objective is to invite the viewer to participate in the unhinging of Nathaniel's mind, a first-person perspective of schizophrenia. Unfortunately, it feels artificial and contrived." I have taught seven NAMI* courses on mental illness. One episode in one of the classes involves requiring class members to perform certain simple tasks while being bombarded by random voices from behind. Many class members find that to be the most unnerving, and illuminating, of all the activities in the course.
Ebert misses the point when he says, "Yes, mental illness can be like that, but can successful drama? There comes a point when Lopez has had enough, and so, in sympathy, have we." Dealing with a mentally ill person can be devastatingly frustrating. Must we always be entertained? There is a place for grim reality in drama. Otherwise, how can we learn?
"The Soloist" is as accurate a representation of schizophrenia as you could experience without becoming mentally ill yourself. If you keep that in mind then the film will be rewarding; if, however, you are looking for a film that makes sense easily and progresses from point to point in a logical manner, then look for a different film.
If you choose to watch the film and absorb the reality of mental illness, then you will learn much. You never know when that knowledge will be of great value to you. Then again, you may be spared, and never need it.
The film introduces a very important idea: mentally ill people do better if there is someone, whom they trust, who takes an abiding interest in them.
It also poses one very important question: should mentally ill persons be forced to take medication to stabilize themselves? Different states, provinces and countries have different laws concerning this. Some feel that mentally ill persons should be forced to take medication if and only if they are likely to harm themselves or others. Mentally ill persons are often unaware that they are mentally ill, and cannot be convinced otherwise. Would they have more freedom to decide correctly for themselves if they were first medicated until they become sane? The film addresses this question but does not attempt to give a definitive answer. You will have to think out that question yourself, keeping in mind that different people have different reactions to the same medication. There is no universal answer, but for each individual, there is probably a best answer but not necessarily a good one.
The film captivated me from the beginning to the end. I did not miss the common devices that some movies use to make them exciting. There was excitement enough for me in the growth of the principal characters and in the learning that I did, and in the thinking that I was forced to do.
*NAMI is The National Alliance on Mental Illness.
P.S. Schizophrenia has absolutely nothing to do with having multiple personalities, or of dichotomies (apparent contradictions). The split in the expression "split personality" is the split between the personality and reality. Unfortunately, the word is misused far more often that it is used correctly.
First off, I should say that I am personally familiar with this story,
having worked in downtown L.A. for the last 19 years and seeing Mr
Ayers and his cello many a time around 3rd and Hill Sts. I've also read
Lopez's columns in the Times for years and followed this one with
interest and satisfaction. Making a film about a tale like this
restores my belief in Hollywood beyond the mindless bunk it churns out
year after year.
Downey Jr and Foxx play a newspaper columnist and homeless man who come together in a most unusual way. Downey is a newspaper columnist looking for something original and interesting to write about. He finds it when he sees Foxx beautifully playing battered stringed instruments along 3rd street in downtown L.A. Foxx has been there for years but on this day grabs the eye of the columnist because the columnist himself is experiencing hardship and doubt related to his own position. He begins to write about this talented but troubled man who fills the stinky air around him with harmony. They become friends but keep in mind this is not fiction. The friendship hits many bumps that continue to this day. Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx's character) may be a brilliant, educated musician, but he suffers from bouts of schizophrenia that manifest at any time. Downey's character accepts this as it adds more intrigue to his columns. Then he accepts it on a personal level. Their friendship ultimately becomes real and meaningful. You sense that Downey's character needs the friendship even more than Foxx's homeless man does. In the end, Downey's Lopez can see the positive effect his work has brought to the plight of the homeless, yet he wonders personally how much better he has made Nathaniel...? His reflections make us think also.
Downey Jr and Foxx play their characters to near perfection and the film masterfully takes its time in developing the relationship between the two. Great to see director Joe Wright telling a contemporary tale just as effectively as he has in previous works. The film makes us wonder how many other Nathaniel Ayers are lurking out there on the streets? Life being what it is, of course we will never know. The beauty of the film is that is shows what can happen when just one Nathaniel Ayers is found after being lost for so many years. There's no sugarcoating; Ayers doesn't magically get better and rejoin mainstream society. Instead, the mainstream accepts him for what he is and what he offers and begins integrating him as best it can. This film will certainly pop up at award time next year.
What makes this film watchable is that it is based on a true story. A
caring Los Angeles reporter named Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.)
tries to help a homeless man named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie
Ayers suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. But he once attended Julliard, and he still lives and breathes the music of Beethoven. Ayers, with his shopping cart of possessions, walks the streets, playing his violin amid the noise of the freeway. He's content, in his own world.
That unusual behavior grabs the attention of Lopez, no doubt as a human interest story for his own column. But as Lopez gradually becomes more genuinely concerned about Ayers, their relationship encounters frustration, anger, and emotional pain.
It's a poignant, gritty story, full of realism. The film manages to be compassionate without being patronizing. The film does a terrific job in portraying the harsh, depressing reality of the boarders who live at a large shelter where Ayers goes, at the insistence of Lopez.
Technical elements of the film are good. The visuals are thematically impressive. Production design and costumes are detailed and realistic. Acting is credible. Robert Downey, Jr. gives a fine performance.
The main problem is the plot. Too much time is spent on Lopez and his trivialities. Somehow, the compelling Ayers story morphs into a weighty examination of Lopez and his distress in dealing with Ayers. The script is to blame here. I think if the main character had been Ayers, instead of Lopez, the film could have been quite inspiring.
Even so, the film clearly calls attention to the plight of the urban homeless. As such, the film deserves viewer support.
After catching snippets of the lackluster reviews (two-stars in the
Globe and Mail) I was dis-heartened. It's been a few months since I'd
been moved by the trailer. However, the film never came out. I thought
it might have been shelved.
I was glad to see it was indeed playing. In spite of the reviews, I persevered on the strength of the trailer. It seemed to me there was too much talent and pedigree involved for it to actually suck. And you know what? it's a terrific film with a poignant story. Perhaps lower expectations propped up my perceptions of it, however, it still stands as time well spent.
The film is based on a true story involving a top columnist at the LA Times, Steve Lopez, played with grace by Robert Downey Jr., who becomes invested in one of his more colourful subjects, Nathaniel Ayers, an accomplished musician overcome by mental illness, now living on the streets of LA portrayed by Jamie Foxx, who rambles his way to a convincing performance.
The film is a satisfying adult drama that doesn't lose it's direction. It doesn't pander to it's audience. There is no random violence, no guns, but indeed simply good story telling with great characterizations. It's a decent film that deserves better treatment in the press. It has a noble heart that succeeds in telling a great human story.
It resonates and strikes a chord.
True Stories are my favorite genre. The SOLOIST was a real eye-opener
and gave me a real "Ah-Ha" moment! Typically, despite being true
stories, (or a good facsimile) the genre is rather formulaic, when you
come right down to it. Person A has problem X, (Some seemingly
insurmountable disease or injury or condition or adversity or a
confluence of 2 or more of the above!) and through inspirational effort
and persistence, defying all odds, Person A manages to overcome problem
X and we ALL feel uplifted in the end!
The SOLOIST is anything but typical. It tells an extremely interesting and unusual story which refuses to conform to the formulaic conventions to which we have, unfortunately, become so complacently accustomed. There are three factors which contribute to creating false expectations for SOLOIST. First, the title itself is somewhat misleading. Watch the movie, and you'll see for yourself!
Second, the trailer is edited so as to create expectations geared to coincide more with the genre's formulaic audience comfort zone. The very thing the movie so painstakingly avoids! And third, the very same set of entrenched genre clichés we have already mentioned, in other words, the baggage viewers bring with them into the theater!
****Possible Very MINOR SPOILER Ahead!****
Putting all of this aside, SOLOIST derives its tremendous energy and appeal from the undeniable on-screen chemistry of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx. Their interaction is a joy to watch. The story does provide the standard genre buzz-words Uplifting, Inspirational and Motivational but for reasons that would be virtually impossible to predict before experiencing the film itself!
Oh, and the music is sublime! Classical music Lovers are in for a veritable treat! There are elements of SOLOIST that will make some viewers squirm. Third world neighborhoods, right here, in downtown Los Angeles, for example. Scenes from SOLOIST have been ricocheting around my brain since yesterday! 9.5*STARS*....ENJOY/DISFRUTELA!
Any comments, questions or observations, in English or Español, are most welcome!
Within a one-week period, I saw my second screening of this powerful movie today. I am mystified by some of the "bilious-type" reviews found here, seemingly driven by an anti-Joe Wright campaign. I found no cheap sentiments in the story line and I was awed by the high-octane performances of Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. Nothing being perfect in an imperfect world, as "adult" entertainment, "The Soloist" did not once insult my intelligence. I marveled at the complexity of the screenplay and the realization of it by its gifted director and the camera-work of Seamus McGarvey. The gifted Dario Marianelli is credited as the film's composer, anecdotally, in the gigantic shadow of Ludwig van Beethoven. Mental illness, genius, homelessness, journalism and music has rarely been so well presented as an "entertainment." Yes, Mr. Ayers is depicted as experiencing a "light show" when attending a rehearsal of the L. A. Philharmonic. At least we didn't see pink hippopotamus in tutus or dinosaurs on a rampage in a prehistoric setting. Being so accustomed to televised concerts, I expected the camera to focus on the instruments themselves in this sequence. And, "clapping pigeons." Great idea that works. A brave film directed at a "non-art house" audience. I also want to cite the wonderful work of Nelsan Ellis who plays David at LAMP. So much compassion comes off the screen with his presence. There is no way we can make "light" of the tragedy of the homeless, so many with mental illness. Thank you Mr. Steve Lopez for introducing me to Mr. Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. My life is richer for the experience. LisaGay Hamilton, as Jennifer Ayers, Nathaniel's sister, deserves recognition in a small, but pivotal role that brings dignity and catharsis to a heart-wrenching experience.
I sometimes work clinically with schizophrenics. This film shows us the
truth about working with severely mentally ill people. David, the man
who runs the shelter for the homeless honestly spoke the truth with his
stance that is opposite of what the Pharmaceutical Industry, most of
psychiatry and the legal system try to make us believe. David was my
hero in this movie.
All though the movie goes quickly over Jamie Fox's childhood trauma and losses -- it's still there, i.e. no father and the truck on fire represent some of the traumas that created his illness. Homeless people with mental illness did not come from healthy childhoods. Almost all came from repeated childhood trauma.(see New Zealand Psychologist John Read PhD and colleagues, the ACE Study from the CDC, and Charles Whitfield's book The Truth about Mental Illness, 2004).
Hollywood did not cover over the painful truths in this story. Jamie Fox's character's mother and his sister were good people and that comes through but they couldn't prevent his wounding. At the end of the film, we are told "90,000 Homeless people in Los Angeles." We walked out of the theater overwhelmed with that figure and uplifted by this true story.
If you're really interested in the truth about schizophrenia there is an excellent DVD documentary called Take These Broken Wings: Recover from Schizophrenia without Medication by Daniel Mackler
This film was supposed to be a major competitor for the Oscars last year, but Paramount bumped it to a few months later. Despite the mixed reviews the film has received, I believe it would have been a major contender. I honestly think Paramount's decision not only ruined its chances for Oscars, it gave the impression that there was something wrong with the picture. There isn't, really. The subject matter does scream "Oscar Bait", with Robert Downey Jr. playing a newspaper columnist who writes about a schizophrenic genius musician (Jamie Foxx) who is homeless on the streets of L.A. We all remember Shine. Shine was pretty good (if entirely made up, as we later discovered). The Soloist is probably a little better. I think it's stronger because of its exploration of the relationship between the two central characters. Both Downey and Foxx are extremely good; both are award-worthy. This material could easily have been cheesy Oscar bait, but director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice and Atonement) is a virtuoso himself. The way he uses image and sound move the story along beautifully, not allowing the clichés to clog up the film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
THE SOLOIST is a powerful, heartfelt, emotionally moving, human drama
with two incredibly talented actors who give their all. It is every bit
as wonderful as what it promises. Definitely one of the best films of
the year. If you're looking for... an inspiring story, well then look
no further. This is another accomplishment by Director Joe Wright
(Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) I've always known Jamie Foxx and Robert
Downey Jr. are two great actors respectively but the mix of two is like
combining two different formulas that compliment each other and create
an atomic chemistry only described as something that no one else will
ever manage to replicate. They can try but won't come out as good as
This is Jamie Foxx's best performance since Ray, and I'd vouch for a second nomination on the horizon. Robert Downey Jr. proves that he's versatile, that he's more than just Tony Stark and he still got pieces of greatness from when he played Chaplin years ago.
We can't really compare the two characters with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man because unlike that movie, in this one, Downey's character, Lopez, doesn't try to take advantage of Jamie's character's, Nathaniel's musical talent. In fact, Lopez thinks that by fixing Nathaniel then maybe he could fix his broken marriage, he thinks that by fixing Nathaniel, he could fix L.A., he thinks that by fixing Nathaniel, all his writing and columns and accomplishment could mean something. But the problem is Nathaniel doesn't want to be fixed.
Sometimes, the only way to heal somebody is just be a good friend in need. Sometimes we gotta accept the fact that some things can't be fixed and that being there for someone speaks louder than our aimless effort to turn them into something they're not.
Nathaniel's love of music is his only connection to what's left that's good in his life, in the midst of chaos and confusion. A friend makes that connection even stronger.
That's what I love about this movie, the story.
Joe Wright's directing is superb, he understands the plot and how the actors should respond to whatever conflict that may surface. The locations chosen or how a scene would play out, his vision of it all is borderline perfect. The portrayal of the skid row and how the camera moves from one homeless guy to another and take us on this view of the forgotten little kingdom is quite humbling. Those of us who've seen the real LA would not find this to be an exaggeration. Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey should definitely be nominated again for the Cinematography, which is absolutely brilliant --Rama's SCREEN--
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Soloist has all ingredients to impress the Academy. Its director,
Joe Wright, has already authored a best picture candidate. The leading
actor, Robert Downey Jr., starred in a widely praised superhero film.
Finally, the movie itself is a drama. When it was mysteriously pulled
from release in late 2008, filmgoers and critics were baffled. Now that
I've seen it, I assure you Universal didn't just delay this film to
promote Iron Man-Oscar buzz. The Soloist is a weak drama with no
external conflict that is vastly inferior to any 2009 best picture
Downey and co-star Jamie Fox aren't to be blamed for this mishap. Joe Wright is largely at fault but even he can't save a Lifetime story. Many movies are too complex and alienate viewers. This one is unusually simple. It's a movie about a newspaper reporter, Steve Lopez (Downey), who befriends a homeless musician, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Fox). That's it. Ayers is schizophrenic and doesn't resonate with Lopez's traditional approach to friendship. The two become friends. They begin this movie as acquaintances and are BFFs by its end. Tension consists of moments like this: will Ayers let Lopez take him to the homeless shelter? This material would have been better suited as a made-for-TV production rather than a feature film.
Wright includes many scenes of cheap humor to obscure the lack of content. Lopez battles yard-defiling raccoons in what I consider a sub-plot. Do you remember when this happened in Atonement or Pride and Prejudice? Those films were structured enough to permit an occasional joke but nothing so prolonged. Ayers' back story is fleshed out when it doesn't need to be. Worst of all, these scenes are not connected and appear at random intervals. It's a way of admitting that the main story carries little appeal. Nathaniel was a violin prodigy with a tough upbringing (I was too). This is a fabricated attempt to create sympathy with Ayers when most of us already have it. He's a homeless schizophrenic for crying out loud! The movie somewhat conveys humanity's love for music, like Amadeus and Beethoven Lives Upstairs. It isn't as effective as either of those pictures, however. The entire film is hinged on Ayers' schizophrenia. It ultimately is how he interacts with everyone else. His being a musician is a nice touch but hardly worth including. The film doesn't incorporate this characteristic fully into his persona. Take music out of Amadeus or Beethoven Lives Upstairs, and no film remains. The Soloist is more about friendship in general than music. Nathaniel could be a writer or film critic and few lines of dialog would need to be seriously altered.
This is only Joe Wright's third film, and his first that isn't a romance staring Keira Knightley. Let's hope this film isn't an indication of how limited his abilities are. There are stylistic nods to his earlier works but The Soloist is much weaker than either of them. In his defense, Universal should not have agreed to widely release this picture. This film seems tailored for Imagine Entertainment (distributors of Changeling). I wouldn't be so disappointed with it if had a limited release. Its poor box office performance may inhibit better dramas from being distributed nationally.
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