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Film / The Soloist

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"To be there with him is and see the way that he sees the world is to be transported. I mean, I have never loved anything the way that he loves music."
Steve Lopez

The Soloist is a 2009 drama film directed by Joe Wright, and starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.. It is based on the book of the same title by Steve Lopez. Steve Lopez is also the main character of the film, and the film essentially chronicles the events which supposedly led to the writing of the book. Both the film and the book are based on the true story of Nathaniel Ayers, a musical prodigy who developed schizophrenia and became homeless.

Lopez (Downey) is a journalist working for the L.A. Times. Due to a decline in the reading of newspapers by the youth, the industry is floundering, and Lopez needs to find and write a good story quickly. Idling about in search of one, he happens across Ayers (Foxx), an apparently mentally-handicapped homeless man playing transfixing music on his violin — despite the fact that the said violin has been worn down to just two strings. Lopez is astonished to learn that Ayers once attended Juilliard. Seeing an opportunity for a story in the form of someone so talented attending such a prestigious school only to wind up on the streets, he contacts Ayers' sister and learns that he dropped out of the school and became homeless due to hearing voices in his head that prevented him from playing in front of an audience. Initially, Lopez sees Ayers only as a source for a story, but through his interactions with him their friendship blossoms and he starts attempting to get Ayers off the street and triumph over his illness.

This film provides examples of:

  • Amicable Exes: Steve and his ex-wife are coworkers at The LA Times and get along just fine.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Averted. The film lets us overhear the conversations between several other unnamed homeless, which humanize them and give them far more depth. There's also a harrowing scene when Steve arrives at a shelter to find that Nathaniel isn't there and that an unnamed black man has been beaten up badly enough to end up in an ER. Fearing the worst, he spends the night trying to get answers from the uncooperative hospital staff. It wasn't Nathaniel, but the point is made that such things happen every day and it could have easily been him.
  • "Aura Vision" / Editorial Synesthesia: When Ayers listens to the orchestra the audience sees the "colors" the music makes in his mind.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the end, Ayers doesn't overcome his illness and graduate from Juilliard. But he does settle in a homeless shelter and acquires a friend.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: The second half is far more dramatic and serious than the first, although for slightly different reasons than most works. Whereas the light-hearted works usually grow darker in attempt to be more mature, here some particularly jarring humour has been crammed in the beginning, apparently in an attempt to lure in the Robert Downey Jr. fans who wouldn’t normally watch such a film.
  • Crazy Homeless People: Nathaniel, as a benign, non-violent version. though he does get a violent outburst when Lopez shows him the papers that declare him as schizophrenic, which he immediately regrets.
  • Drugs Are Bad: On the night when Steve watches Nathaniel get to sleep in a tunnel with other homeless, they’re disturbed by a ground gathering around a man who died of heroin overdose.
  • Easy Evangelism: Averted with the music teacher, who attempts to convert Nathaniel into his church, but fails miserably at it, and only makes things worse.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Seems to be played straight in one flashback, when there's a car crashing and catching on fire in the young Nathaniel's neigbourhood.
  • Film of the Book: The book written by one its central characters, no less. In the DVD's Special Features, Real Life Steve Lopez says that he rejected about 15 offers to adapt his story before he agreed to this version.
  • Hard Work Hardly Works: Invoked and averted: Nathaniel himself spent hours training in his youth, with great results, and presumes that everyone in Juilliard trains just as hard. When he overheard one of the other students mention he only trains half-an-hour a week, this sets off an identity crisis for Nathaniel, and it's implied to be the first time he's heard the voices in his head.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Steve seems to have this view of them. Early on in the film, he attempts interviewing an atheist charity group, and one of his lines is “So do you non-gather in your non-worship?” The film itself doesn't agree with Lopez on that issue however: see Easy Evangelism above.
  • Ho Yay: Invoked and Deconstructed. Steve is very much aware that their relationship seems to head into "more than friends" territory and in one scene, Nathaniel outright tells him "I love you." Steve brings this up with the LAMP's manager, and when the latter suggests him to get over it he rejects it, saying " I don't want to be the only thing he has. "I love you Steve" all too often turns into "You have failed me, Steve."
  • Last-Name Basis: Steve and Nathaniel end up calling each other as Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ayers by the end of the film, a sign that Nathaniel has begun to move from personal dependency on Steve to greater independence and that Steve rediscovered respect and integrity in his journalistic work.
  • Los Angeles: The city features prominently in the film, and Nathaniel frequently repeats many of landmarks where he has played as a Madness Mantra of sorts. The film also focuses a lot on the city's problem with homelessness: the ending credits reiterate that there are still 90,000 homeless on its streets.
  • Mars and Venus Gender Contrast: In one of the early scenes at the newspaper publishing building, we see a female journalist with an inscibed mug. The lettering reads "Men Are From Mars, She Stole My Penis".
  • May–December Romance: Amongst the homeless people at LAMP, there’s a black man in early 30’s and a much older white woman near him, and it’s strongly implied they’re in a relationship.
  • Motor Mouth: Nathaniel.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted, literally. There’s Steve Lopez, the lead journalist, and there’s another Steve amongst the homeless.
  • Only in It for the Money: Initially, Steve Lopez is only interested in Nathaniel because his newspaper is losing customers, and he needs to have a good story in the paper. Later on, when he receives an award for his writings, one of his manager friends only sees them as “a way to get a load of dough”.
  • Oscar Bait: The film's about a homeless, mentally-handicapped, African American musical prodigy and an unlikely friend's attempts to get him off the street and triumph over his illness, by which said friend becomes more compassionate and soft-hearted. And it's based on a book. Which in turn is based on a true story.
    • However, none of it worked, as the film has many critics off with its tonal dissonance at the beginning, and so it wasn't nominated. Not only that, but because it was released right in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, it ended up ignored and only made half of its budget back.
  • Parental Abandonment: Steve's ex-wife calls him out on practically forgetting about their son and not even bothering to write him letters, let alone regularly meeting him.
  • Running Gag: Steve vs. the raccoons.
  • Serious Business: Nathaniel perceives cigarette butts left around as personal insults. At one point, he risks his life and jumps into the traffic to pick up a loose cigarette butt, without understanding just how much danger he has put himself through.
    • There’s also the scene where after finally persuading Nathaniel to move into a flat, Lopez notices a cigarette butt on the floor and rushes in to pick it up.
  • There Are No Therapists: Averted with Nathaniel: there are therapists, but like many such people, he doesn’t want to contact them and the manager of the LAMP is similarly reluctant to employ them, believing it a violation of the clients' free will. When Steve calls him out on his methods failing to work, the manager manages to convince him otherwise, telling him that this would betray all trust Nathaniel held in him and that he needs a friend more than therapy.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Nathaniel has a version of this when he sees the guardianship papers which would place him in the care of his sister. There, he’s stated to have a schizophrenic mind, which comes as a great shock to him: one of the hallmarks of severe schizophrenia is to believe yourself to be normal at all costs.
  • Unlocking the Talent: Not so much unlocking, since Nathaniel has had it since his childhood, but allowing him to overcome at least some of the mental illness that stifles said talent.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Purposefully invoked in one scene, when young Nathaniel sees a car crash and burn in their neighbourhood, yet turns away and continues to practice his music, thus showing the extent of his mental condition.
  • White Man's Burden: Initially played straight, then deconstructed, as Lopez realises that Nathaniel cannot depend on him alone, but has to establish himself as his own person in spite of his mental illness.