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Vol. LXIII, No. 16
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
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For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE MYSELF: Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr, left), after introducing himself to the homeless derelict Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), is amazed to discover that Nathaniel, who occasionally plays music with extraordinary virtuosity on a violin with only two strings in Los Angeles’s Skid Row, is a Juilliard trained musician.

The Soloist: Foxx Riveting as Homeless Savant in Best Role since “Ray”

Kam Williams

While growing up and being raised by a single-mother, child prodigy Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) exhibited such promise as a cellist that by the time he graduated from high school in 1970 he had earned a scholarship to Juilliard. But unlike other classmates such as Yo-Yo Ma, Nathaniel would never get a chance to realize his full potential as a musician because during his sophomore year he began exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia which ultimately derailed his promising career in classical music.

He had to drop out of school and return home to Cleveland where he was cared for by his mother until she passed away in 2000. Next, Nathaniel headed west under the delusion that his father lived in Los Angeles. Instead, he ended up on Skid Row in Los Angeles, leading a hand-to-mouth existence in obscurity alongside thousands of equally destitute people.

The only hint of his musical past was revealed when he periodically played the violin in the park while standing beneath a statue of Ludwig van Beethoven. Nonetheless, Nathaniel generally went unnoticed by passersby until Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), a writer for the Los Angeles Times, was struck by the virtuosity of this homeless man who was playing on a battered instrument with only two strings.

The intrigued reporter introduced himself, and was amazed to hear Nathaniel, during rare moments of clarity, assert that he had once studied at Juilliard. After checking that claim with the school’s administration office in New York, Steve decided to write a series of feature stories about how someone so talented could end up as a street musician begging for handouts. Steve found himself crossing the line from dispassionate journalist to friend and benefactor as he became increasingly involved with rehabilitating his subject by not only finding him an apartment, but arranging for music lessons and mental health treatment.

Thus, “Can this lost soul be saved?” is the burning question posed by The Soloist, a bittersweet biopic based on Steve Lopez’s bestseller of the same name. Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), the film features Jamie Foxx who does a magnificent job in his most challenging role since Ray. In the film, he convincingly conveys the tragic plight of a man still capable of flashes of brilliance who is more often than not betrayed by his own brain. Narrator Robert Downey, Jr. is just as effective playing the Good Samaritan forced by his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) to question his own motivations when his every attempt to help Nathaniel is thwarted by the very person he’s trying to help.

Was Steve Lopez altruistic or was he motivated by the potential income from the book and movie deals that Nathaniel’s unusual life might bring? And was it fair of him to presume to know what was best for a schizophrenic? Judge for yourself. There are no easy answers here, so don’t expect a Hollywood ending. Ironically, the picture was shot on location on Los Angeles’s Skid Row and employed hundreds of homeless as extras.

A compelling cross of A Beautiful Mind and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that is capable of holding its own against those films.

Excellent (4 stars) Rated PG-13 for mature themes, drug use, and profanity. Running time: 109 minutes. Studio: Dreamworks Pictures.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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