April 24, 2009 in Features

‘The Soloist’ falls on duo’s shoulders

Foxx, Downey Jr. team up to tell story of schizophrenic street musician
Steven Rea The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
movieweb.com photo

Jamie Foxx plays Nathaniel Ayers and Robert Downey Jr. plays newspaper columnist Steve Lopez in “The Soloist.” movieweb.com
(Full-size photo)

The critics’ take

Here’s what reviewers are saying about “The Soloist”:

“What could have been a maudlin exercise in sentimentality – the unlikely relationship between a homeless street musician and a Los Angeles Times metro columnist – becomes a soul-stirring tribute to the power of music and the importance of friendship.” – Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“On paper, you can see how this project had major promise. In execution, it’s an awkward mix of gritty city visuals and mawkish sentiments in which even actors the caliber of Downey, Foxx and Catherine Keener seem to have had difficulty finding nuance.” – Christy Lemire, Associated Press

“Under the steady hand of director Joe Wright … and great performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx (destined to square off against one another in the next Oscar race), this real-life story quickly establishes itself as one of the year’s best movies. … ‘The Soloist’ is not only a great movie experience, it’s one of those rare films that might leave you a better person than when you went in.” – Robert Butler, Kansas City Star

So there’s Jamie Foxx, in ragtag yellow and magenta, standing on a Los Angeles sidewalk, talking to Robert Downey Jr.

The scene cuts up and away from the actors to a jetliner in a soaring arc above the skyscrapers.

“Are you flying that plane?” says Foxx’s Nathaniel Ayers.

“No, I’m right here,” says Downey’s Steve Lopez.

And there, in “The Soloist” – the new $60 million movie adaptation of the best-selling book inspired by a series of newspaper columns – is the Hollywood version of a pivotal moment in the real Steve Lopez’s life.

“It was a block from the L.A. Times, and Nathaniel had moved to that spot, in part because he could see the L.A. Times building and he knew I was there, and it was a reminder that he was in L.A.,” says Lopez.

“And a plane flies overhead … and he looks at me and said, ‘Are you flying that plane?’ and I looked at him like, ‘What? I’m right here.’

“He said, ‘Yeah, but are you flying the plane?’ It was my first little window into what Nathaniel is up against.”

Ayers is a schizophrenic, a Juilliard-trained cellist, a homeless man who played violin on the pavement around L.A.’s Pershing Square.

Lopez ran into him there on an afternoon back in early 2005, wrote a column about this guy with a shopping cart and a jones for Beethoven, and … well, several years later a pair of A-list movie stars are pretending to be Mr. Ayers and Mr. Lopez in multiplexes across the land.

Foxx’s portrayal of Ayers hews pretty close to his real-life counterpart, says Lopez.

As for the newspaper guy, liberties were taken. But Lopez is OK with that.

“Initially, I was a little bothered,” Lopez, 55, says about hearing that he was being depicted in Susannah Grant’s screenplay as divorced and alone when, in fact, he’s married with a young daughter.

“But they were true to the important part of the story for me, and I’m grateful for that,” he adds.

“I hope that people who see the film might think about connections, about finding your passion. For Nathaniel, it’s obvious, and for me it was the experience of rediscovering my own passion.

“And I think there’s a lot of hope in the story, so I’m fine with that. And perhaps more importantly, my wife is fine with it.”

Director Joe Wright, the Brit behind “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement,” acknowledges that Downey’s Lopez is the most fictionalized element in his film.

“I felt a great responsibility to portray Nathaniel – Mr. Ayers – and the Skid Row community as realistically and as faithfully as I could,” he says. “With Steve, I felt less of a responsibility in regards to being faithful to his character and his family situation. …

“For instance, making him divorced rather than married with a small child … that makes Nathaniel and Steve both soloists. They’re both people who are unable to connect with other human beings. And that’s what the film is about really, amongst other things.”

To prepare for the role, Downey – coming off the career-rocketing comic-book superhero business of “Iron Man” – met with Lopez, dogged him around, took him to dinner.

“We went to a concert together, along with Nathaniel and Jamie Foxx,” Lopez recalls. “And one night, Robert Downey and I went to dinner, and we went to a cigar bar. …

“What was nice about that was we didn’t really talk about anything in particular. I don’t know how he works, I didn’t know what he had in mind, but I think he just wanted to have a normal conversation. He said he was looking for some piece of me to work with.”

Lopez, who’s been traveling the country – and even to Tokyo – to talk up the film, the book, and the plight of the mentally ill and homeless, remains in close contact with Ayers.

A foundation has been established in his name (administered by Ayers’ sister, a social worker in Atlanta). He lives in housing supported by Lamp, the homeless shelter and advocacy group in downtown L.A – whose facilities, staff and residents are prominently featured in the movie.

Ayers, Lopez, and the Lamp folks attended the cast and crew screening of “The Soloist” not long ago.

“We went, but Nathaniel didn’t look at the film,” Lopez reports. “He has a fear of two-dimensional images – it’s another symptom of the illness. It’s just too much to process: two-dimensional ghosts on the screen, especially one of them who’s named Nathaniel.

“So the combination of that, and him knowing that it depicted his breakdown, was a little too much for him to handle. But the people that he lives with are in the movie … and Paramount sent a big bus to take them over to the theater in Hollywood, so it was party time for them, and he didn’t want to miss out on it.

“I met him there and we sat next to each other and I said, ‘Look, just remember this is a somewhat fictional representation of our lives, and Jamie Foxx is going to say things that you didn’t say, Robert Downey is going to say things that I didn’t say, but this is about our friendship and I think there are some powerful messages here that you should be proud of and I’m very thankful for your generosity in sharing the story. And if it’s uncomfortable for you, just close your eyes, or we’ll go for a walk.’

“So he closed his eyes for the whole thing, and loved the music, particularly. Here’s the one moviegoer who will prefer the soundtrack over the film itself.”

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