Contrary to what Terry Gilliam movies teach us, going mad is no fun. The only thing real madness makes you aware of is how you should prize sanity. There are no life lessons to be learned, sadly, from slipping out of your head. Real madness is a hell with no dimensions: ungraspable and unkind. There’s something especially pitiless about a disease that corrupts thought. The new movie, The Soloist, tells the true story of a schizophrenic Julliard-trained musician named Nathaniel Ayers. He is, by turns: loquacious, gentle, intriguing and capable of snapping your neck. He is not changed by the movie’s end, and the movie is better for it.
Seeking human-interest stories for his “Points West” column in the L.A. Times, Steve Lopez meets Nathaniel Ayers by a statue of Beethoven. Having overheard Ayers mention Julliard in-between talk of space aliens, Lopez calls the school and discovers his next story. It turns out Ayers – a man who sleeps rough and dresses like he’s headed for Mardi Gras – is a former music prodigy. Lopez writes a column about Ayers’ plight, and one of his readers sends in a cello. For the journalist, minor celebrity and bigger pay-days beckon; Ayers seems like manna from Bedlam. But slowly, Lopez’s conscience stirs; his meal-ticket doesn’t like the spotlight.
The difficulty in playing “mad” is that it’s easy to overdo it. Madness, like alcohol, offers actors an awful temptation to grandstand. Think of Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys, Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, or Nicolas Cage in anything (including his “sane” roles). Playing an actual living mad person doesn’t tend to sway actors one way or the other (they’re mostly focused on the Oscars), but thankfully, Jamie Foxx is reasonably restrained. Give the man credit, he’s playing a homeless (read: Oscar-worthy), schizophrenic (read: Oscar-worthy) music prodigy (read: And the winner is…), so the urge to break-dance through his scenes must have been crippling. But Foxx is admirably free of extraneous ticks and finger twirls, and even when he gets a Shine-esque, enraptured-by-the-music scene, he refrains from weeping (and other, shameless, hand-me-the-Oscar-isms).
In the more sedate role of “disillusioned reporter”, Robert Downey Jr. opts to watch Foxx in most scenes. He knows he can’t compete with a madman’s wardrobe and a musical instrument, so he listens and waits for his scenes with Catherine Keener. Since she’s gorgeous as August and sexy as ripe cherries, Downey knows we’ll spend far more time puzzling how his character got divorced from her than we will pondering Jamie Foxx’s madness. We’ll suspect Downey of being an ass, but since he can play “smart” with his shoes on the wrong feet, it’s this fallible quality that keeps him interesting. He’s believable as an ex-husband without coming off like a douchebag, which is no mean feat when his ex-wife such a knockout.
Catherine Keener isn’t on-screen for more than ten minutes, and most of her screen-time is about building Downey’s character, and I really shouldn’t devote any lines to her at all… but can I dub her the new Susan Sarandon? She’s the right age for those Sarandon roles (i.e. the “mom” role, plus sex), she’s the best thing in most things she’s in, and her voice is tailor-made for giving life-wisdom. As I say, she has next-to-nothing to do in The Soloist, but… oh, you know.
Nothing much happens in this movie, except that one man helps another man. It doesn’t end with Nathaniel Ayers winning American Idol, or Steve Lopez winning a Pulitzer Prize. The homeless people of Los Angeles do not bond together and put on a show. Instead, you get the reality of Ayers’ condition: he can be helped, but he will never be a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There are some schizophrenics who do manage to hold down jobs, marry and have children, and there are a lot who don’t, and Nathaniel Ayers is the latter. The lesson here isn’t nihilism; it’s realism. That, and the fact a good deed should be its own reward.