Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Soloist: Failing to Take Flight

In 2005, I began to see advertised a new film adaptation of Jane Austen's classic Pride & Prejudice. From the advertisements, it appeared to be an unnecessary, perfunctory adaptation of a novel that had been adapted many a time for the screen, both silver and small, often times inelegantly, as with the clunky 1940 big-budget MGM adaptation ("You have too much PRIDE, sir!""And you, too much PREJUDICE!"). This new version appeared to be suffering from the same wrongheadedness, casting period-piece favorite Keira Knightley in the lead as the, ehem, prideful Elizabeth Bennet. I thought nothing of the film after seeing the advertisement, and forgot about it. Then the film opened in November of 2005, with strong reviews and praise for Knightley's performance. Out of curiosity, and strong optimism, I decided to see the film. What I saw, almost immediately, was a filmmaker interested in cinema. The film opens with a long tracking shot, taking us inside the Bennet household, in and out of rooms, through both the upstairs and downstairs worlds. It was a breathtaking introduction to a filmmaker I'd come to grow quite fond of over the next few years.

In that film, and his 2007 follow up Atonement, based on the Ian McEwan novel of the same name, the director Joe Wright carved out a place for himself as one of the pre-eminent directors in England. Here was a young, headstrong filmmaker who was willing to take chances both filmicly and thematically, chances that set him apart from his peers, and fellow "period film" purveyors. Wright was able to bring life to ideas, filling them with emotion and grandeur that never crossed over into being overwrought or mannered. He was able to draw performances from young actors not seen in any of their previous work, creating with Ms. Knightley two of the most classical, subtle, and moving female screen performances this decade has yet seen. He was able to playfully arrange actors in a frame, twisting them around one another, exploring screenspace in ways few filmmakers attempt to, and draw emotion from both his actors and his camera.

It was with this great regard and anticipation that I brought to Mr. Wright's third film, The Soloist, based again on a novel, this time the non-fiction novel of the same name by The Los Angeles Times' Steve Lopez. The film centers on Mr. Lopez (here played by Robert Downey Jr.) and his discovery of a mentally unstable former Julliard cellist, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), now living homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, and follows their subsequent friendship.

Wright directs the film from a screenplay by Susannah Grant, who chooses to structure the film around Lopez, who then brings the audience into Ayers world, a convention that has grown tiresome, as studios feel it necessary to lure in the audience with the stable, not coincidentally white character that they can hopefully identify with. It's a convention that's insulting in many ways, but also makes for a far less interesting film. This is, or it should be, a parallel story of two men forging a friendship, one providing attention and stability where there was none, and one providing a great skill at communicating through music. Part of the problem is that we cannot identify with Lopez because the screenplay, embellished by Mr. Downey's performance, saddles him with all kinds of tangetical problems, his industry is dying, he's divorced, and he's constantly being covered in urine, both his own and that of a coyote. I suppose this is to make us feel like both Ayers and Lopez have problems so their connection isn't just a one sided affair, but what Ayers suffers from is debilitating mental illness, whereas Lopez just comes off as a wealthy dick.

The other major problem with the film is the music, or should I say the lack there of. For a film about a friendship forged through music, we hear so very little of it, and even less from Ayers himself. After Lopez writes a column about Ayers, and mentions that the violin he plays only has two strings, a reader sends in a cello, and when Lopez presents it to Ayers, he hears for the first time the genius that Ayers has musically. On screen, we can see Lopez is feeling something, which we take, or would if it were written better, as something he hasn't done in quite some time because of the aforementioned "problems." While we can see Lopez experiencing the music through Downey's performance, the film robs the audience of that same experience, because not long after Ayers begins playing his Beethoven piece, an orchestra joins in, swelling the music to, well, a louder place, and Mr. Wright's camera swells too, craning up from the tunnel where Ayers sleeps and plays, to the sky, following CGI birds gliding over Los Angeles (get it, the music is soaring!), intercut with the pained expressions of Foxx and the tearing face of Downey. It's a disappointing moment because anyone whose ever delved into classical music at all knows that experiencing music like that played unadorned can be a transformative experience in and of itself. But because we're robbed of hearing that, and distracted by Wright's CGI bird visualizations, we don't share in Lopez's transformative experience, one that cements his bond to Ayers, making his being moved unrelatable, and thus fails to create the interest we should have in their connection.

That scene lies in stark contrast to the one transcendent moment of the film, when Lopez arranges for Ayers to sit in with him alone on the rehearsal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the beautiful Walt Disney Concert Hall. As the orchestra begins its Beethoven piece, we literally go inside Ayers' mind as he listens, and in a Fantasia-esque touch, see colors, dancing to the music, onscreen for minutes. It's perhaps the most astonishing moment I've seen on screen this in several years, and it's juxtaposition with what surrounds it highlights what's so wrong with the rest of the film. It's the only moment in the film where Wright seems to be escaping the screenplay and getting at the feeling of the piece and allowing the audience to experience as the characters do, something he does more adeptly in his previous two films.

Though the screenplay is flawed, Wright is not blameless here. He trusts in the screenplay and while trying to make it fit, isn't suited to the material. Wright and Grant try to shoehorn all kinds of political relevance into the film as well, showing a montage featuring former President George W. Bush, Hurricane Katrina, has characters talk about the death of the newspaper industry, lamenting the massive homeless population in Los Angeles, and in one scene seems to be condemning Atheism, and in the next pointing out the futility of religion to the homeless population. The film tries to have it both ways like that in many respects, and it only clouds its message and separates us from the story, as with the flashbacks that run throughout the film that "explain" how Ayers got to be on the street. But these flashbacks don't illuminate anything about Ayers character or his headspace, they just provide Wright with a chance to film 1960s decor and costumes, and give Foxx a chance to show just how much range he has. Mr. Downey isn't right for the role as is written, and Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Tom Hollander and Nelsan Ellis are wasted in underwritten, undynamic roles.

There's no reason with a cast like this, a director like this, and the abundance of music the story calls for, for the film to be so often lifeless. Wright is a great director, and his first two films are among the best of the decade, particularly Atonement, which in that glutted year of so-called masterpieces, I thought was the standout of 2007. Here however, his material is weak, and with his first two films being derived from Jane Austen and Ian McEwan, it's not terribly surprising that when presented with an American newspaper writer as his source material, he doesn't quite connect with it. I hope that Wright returns to England and searches for the right material, because when he's at his best, unlike those fake birds, his films do indeed soar.