Elaine at the movies

Elaine Blum

As a drama, “The Soloist” strays from the usual repertoire with which I typically satisfy my movie-going habits. I am typically in the mood for a comedy: pure frivolous fun that provides an escape from life’s complications. In contrast, dramas are typically heavier, more provocative and require audiences to think. Who wants that? Not to sound too existential, but “The Soloist” proved to be quite contemplative.
Steve Lopez, played by Robert Downey Jr., is a newspaper columnist immersed in finding his next lead. He has a one-track mind and periodically narrates his experiences as if dictating possible starts to articles. This internal dialogue mirrors the corporate world that he represents: Individuals are solely concerned with selling themselves and their ideas to normal society.
In searching for a new story, Lopez meets garrulous street musician Nathaniel Ayers, played by Jamie Foxx. Whereas Lopez represents the ethic of “business as usual” and other norms, Ayers is an aberration: an obviously gifted musician, previously enrolled in Julliard, and now on the streets. He is a deviation from the paradigm that gifted people are successful. Much of the film’s intensity is derived from the interplay between ideas of what is normal and deviations thereof.
Downey and Foxx are unrivaled in their impressively complex performances. I was most impressed by the scene in which Ayers reunites with the cello. As he plays, the music consumes him. It provides peace for him – a sense of centering, of knowing that this is where he is supposed to be and this is what he is supposed to be doing. All at once, Foxx conveys a sense of peace and happiness, but also a sense of sadness and longing. He conveys this breadth of emotion simply via movements and facial expressions.
Downey, along with the audience, responds to this performance with awe. It is impressive that this homeless street musician can whip off a Beethoven sonata on a walkway, near heavy traffic, after not having touched a cello for a few years. But besides this initial awe, Downey alludes to other emotions, namely profound emptiness and feelings akin to jealousy of this musician who is so thoroughly content. As Lopez later comments, “I’ve never loved anything as much as he loves music.”
Another impressive aspect of the film is its strategic use of images. The film strategically contextualizes the story by using images of city life and business as transitions between scenes – an office overflowing with files and stacks of paperwork, expanses of highway and parking lots packed with cars, neighborhoods filled with houses of the same size and color and all having a swimming pool in the rear.
These images collectively represent the facade of what is normal. Everything has its place and everyone has his or her role to play. Everything is business as usual. This is the world in which Lopez operates and in which he subsequently discovers emptiness without passion such as he finds in Nathaniel.
Perhaps this is not the lighthearted romp that you might look for on a whim to relax. However, if you can stand contemplating while watching a movie, this one is worth screening. If you do choose to watch, I promise a beautiful sampling of cello is in your future.