Soloist, The (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.
Length: 117 minutes
Grade: C+C-AA=B+
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $30 million (31 U.S., 1 Intl., 8 DVD)

Written by: Susannah Grant (Charlotte’s Web, Catch and Release, Erin Brockovich, 28 Days, Ever After, and Pocohontas), based on the book by Steve Lopez.
Directed by: Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., and Catherine Keener.

Summary: An LA columnist writes a column about his encounter with a mentally ill, homeless former Juliard student playing his violin on the street one day and then gradually becomes more and more invested in this man’s life. Based on a true story.

Entertainment Value: C+
Let me start by saying that Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. are two of the very best actors of their generation, and both perform brilliantly in this movie. I think the best way I can describe this film is by saying that it’s valuable without being enjoyable. It’s at times frustrating, visually annoying (the light sequence during the private concerto really bothered both me and my wife), and somewhere around the halfway mark I started to distrust that this movie would deliver an ending that would justify the movie itself. It reminded me a lot of Reign Over Me, which had the same sort of “almost, but not quite” feel that I found in both of Joe Wright’s other movies, especially Atonement. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth watching. This is why I distinguish between entertainment value and other aspects of a movie.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language D
There is constant drinking in the movie. There is no sex to speak of at all. Violence is two fistfights, a man being hospitalized after falling off his bike, and a scene of police rousting homeless people after a murder. Profanity is pretty heavy, even for a PG-13. PG-13 is probably right, but mostly for the language.

Significant Content: A
In a way, this is an American counterpart to the hugely successful and (clearly) much better Indian movie, Slumdog Millionaire. That movie was a fascinating story which served as a pretext for exposing audiences to the slums of India, and this movie is a less fascinating story which serves as a way of exposing Americans to homelessness and mental illness here at home. Clearly it’s also a movie about the importance and power of music. The saddest element of this movie is not the condition of Nathaniel, but the portrayal by an LA Times columnist of a self-righteous and truly foolish Christian cellist who makes all Christians look like incompetent buffoons. In contrast, the divorced, foul-mouthed alcoholic columnist winds up looking like a real Christian in the end. It’s also a story about exploitation, which Steve is forced to confront in himself. But the real message of this movie, and the one which easily overshadows everything else I’ve said, is that friendship means investing in people and being there for them regardless of their prospects for ever becoming better (more healthy) people. In other words, it’s about unconditional love.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Despite not particularly enjoying this movie, especially the portrayal of the stupid Christian character, it’s easily excellent as an art piece. It raises questions about how our society values some people and not others, what role the arts have and should have in a civilized society, and what is really motivating us in acts of seeming charity. I was particularly moved when I found out that one of the preconditions of the film’s makers was that they would use real members from the homeless shelter that is so central to the movie as actors.

Discussion Questions:
~What makes Steve Lopez become interested in Nathaniel in the beginning? If he hadn’t been a columnist in need of a story, would he have given Nathaniel much thought? Would you describe his treatment of Nathaniel in the beginning exploitative? Is there a point in the movie where you would no longer describe their relationship this way? At what point, and why? Does writing columns about people generally benefit them? Did this column benefit Nathaniel? Did Steve write it for Nathaniel’s benefit? If you were Nathaniel, would you want this movie made about you?
~A major theme in this movie is the tension between Steve trying to do for Nathaniel what he thinks is in Nathaniel’s best interest versus what Nathaniel wants. Which of these efforts would you say were truly noble and right and which of them were presumptuous and arrogant?
~What motivated Steve in this movie? Was it a genuine love of Nathaniel or some sort of guilty conscience? When Steve gets frustrated at Nathaniel, is it because he hates to see Nathaniel suffer or is it because Nathaniel’s resistance is depriving Steve of the pleasure he anticipates for successfully helping him? Is it fair to say that Steve thought he could “save” Nathaniel, and that this immediately appealed to him as a way to “save” or redeem himself? Consider the scene where he talks about lying to get Nathaniel on medication. How does that look like idolatry? Have you ever gotten angry at someone because they deprived you of the feeling that you did a good deed for them in this way? Is that love or selfishness? How might we overcome that problem?
~Why do people value Nathaniel but not any of the other people at the shelter? If Nathaniel hadn’t been a Juliard dropout, would he have been good material for a column? What makes Steve persist in this movie? To what degree does Nathaniel’s talent cause Steve to endure more from him than he would from any of those other people? Is there anything essentially wrong about valuing Nathaniel more than those others? Does the Bible encourage us to distinguish between people this way?
~Does this movie motivate you to want to do something for the homeless and mentally ill? Does it motivate you to actually befriend someone like this? If it does, would you call that a Biblical impact?
~Why does Nathaniel’s sister love him even though he’s so frustrating and sometimes hostile to her? What is the importance of involuntary relationships for difficult people? How is her love reflective of God’s love for us?
~Discuss the Christian cellist. What good lessons for us can his bad example give? Was this a fair portrayal of him? Were you more uncomfortable at the presence of this character or at the homeless conditions around the shelter? Who in this movie most closely represents the spirit of Jesus?
~Buddy movies are often about a strong person who has something to offer a weaker person, but the weaker person wants the relationship and the stronger one does not. In this movie, both strength and desire are on Steve Lopez’s side. If so, how does Steve represent God and God’s love?
Overall Grade: B+
Obviously, there’s plenty to think about and discuss here, and even if it’s not very enjoyable, both the themes and the simple, unromanticized depiction of homelessness and mental illness is well worth the time.

No comments: