PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.
April 24, 2009
Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx
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The Soloist: Love Conquers All
By Jesse Carey
- There’s a scene about mid-way through The Soloist where journalist Steve Lopez (played by the always-entertaining Robert Downey Jr.) looks out the window of his upper-middle class LA home to see raccoons devouring his grass. Despite his efforts (and previous comical attempt at using coyote urine as deterrent), the raccoons are slowing eating his lawn away.
The scene is one of the subtle metaphors director Joe Wright (whom helmed the critically acclaimed Atonement) uses to show the struggle Lopez faces after intervening in the life a local homeless man who plays the music on street corners.
The Soloist is the true story of journalist Steve Lopez and his relationship with the homeless, mentally-ill cello prodigy Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (played brillantly by Jamie Foxx). Based on a book written by Lopez, the film recounts Lopez’s initial meeting with Ayers in an LA park and the year-long journey to tell his story in the newspaper and get him off the street. It’s an intriguing and inspiring premise, but what makes the story—and the film—stand out, is the frustrating complexity that comes along with truly helping someone.
After finding out that the homeless Ayers once attended the prestigious Juilliard School, Lopez begins chronicling his relationship with the street musician in his column for the Los Angeles Times. But what starts out as an interesting story for his column develops into a friendship—and a mission.
Though a cello prodigy and a musical genius, Ayers apparently suffered a mental breakdown, leaving school and becoming homeless after traveling to LA. For decades, his severe schizophrenia went untreated. After his readers begin forming a connection with Ayers, Lopez makes it his personal mission to help him get off the street, reconnect with his family and seek treatment.
But this is much more complicated as it seems.
Lopez’s journey to help his new friend leads him to discover the dark underbelly of urban homelessness, and the plight of addicts, mentally ill and downtrodden that find themselves on Skid Row. Lopez’s efforts to help Ayers lead him to become an advocate for the group, and it’s here where the film explores the deeper issues that face LA’s homeless community.
Like trying to get rid of the raccoons eating his lawn, Lopez finds that there’s no easy solution for the problems Ayers—and the larger homeless community in general—are facing.
Though he’s perpetually cynical (and at times irreverent), Lopez—a divorced father to a distant son—starts finding purpose in his efforts to help Ayers. He turns first to a local Christian mission that will provide housing for Ayers, though they too seem inadequately prepared to treat his mental illness.
Lopez also contacts a friend, Graham Claydon, who is a classically trained cellist to help reignite Ayers’ gift for music. But this is where they film’s not-subtle commentary about Christianity comes into play.
Though well-intentioned, Claydon’s zealous (and mildly creepy) expressions of faith and prayer seem to make a larger statement about how the filmmakers see some Christian’s efforts to help the mentally ill. Claydon seems to want to find a quick-fix for Ayers’ deeply rooted problems, and as a result, ends up compounding them. When his well-intentioned prayers and “biblical” advice don’t have an immediate effect, Claydon tries unsuccessfully to force Ayers into normalcy—an effort that ends disastrously.
But Christian evangelism-style outreach isn’t the only effort that’s decried in the film’s plot. When Lopez appeals to the mayor to help the residents of Skid Row, the police’s heavy-handed approach nearly destroys the lives of the desperate community.
It’s only when appeals to overnight change and government intervention fail that Lopez—and the film itself—realize a deeper message: If you truly want to change someone’s life, you must be willing to be their friend.
To make an objective observation, I don’t think the film was totally unfair to Christians—in fact the mission that ultimately houses and feeds many of the homeless is Christian-based (at least according to the neon Bible verse on the building). But the filmmaker’s use of Claydon was over-the-top. Instead of exploring a facet of the trap some Christians can fall into when helping those in need, Claydon was a ridiculous characture of a Christian. And that's unfortunate, because the movie could have more effectively showed the issue: Yes, prayer is effective. Yes, preaching the truth is essential. But we also need to remember that genuine friendship and reaching out in love and patience is a deep display of God’s relationship with us.
God can do miracles, but sometimes the journey itself (the relationship developed between two people) is more significant than the outcome (which, in some cases, may never really be fully realized).
There’s no immediate "cure" for the urban homelessness Lopez discovers, and Ayers’ may never “get better”—but that’s not the point. Sometimes, the “cure” isn’t the outcome—it’s the understanding and relationship developed and maintained with the people that are suffering. It's a truth that both characters seem to realize, though Lopez himself never makes up his mind about faith, and Ayers maintains a confused view about God.
Like the film itself (which constantly departs from the central plot to chase rabbit trails, takes time to explore music visually and showcases disturbing intricacies of mental illness), the relationship between Ayers and Lopez is messy. The movie constantly reminds viewers of the seriousness of mental illness as well as chronic homelessness. As Lopez finds out, there’s no easy cure. Though they can at times help, government assistance, religious advice and treatment plans are not substitutes for self-sacrifice, understanding, and, ultimately, friendship.
Editor’s Note: While watching the film and seeing the plight of those living on Skid Row and the downtrodden of urban Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the amazing work being done at the Los Angeles Dream Center. This fall I visited the Dream Center and saw first-hand the amazing outreach they have to those in need in the community. With programs that help single mothers, drug addicts, gang members and victims of abuse, the Dream Center is truly an example of the relationship and service-based ministry that is reaching Los Angeles with the Gospel.
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Jesse Carey is the Interactive Media Producer for CBN.com. With a background in entertainment and pop-culture writing, he offers his insight on music, movies, TV, trends and current events from a unique perspective that examines what implications the latest news has on Christians.
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