Last night I saw The Soloist, the movie based on Steve Lopez's book about his unlikely friendship with a gifted, homeless musician, Nathaniel Ayers. Lopez is a columnist for the L.A. Times, and he initially met Ayers while doing a column on him, which became many columns, and finally a book.
I approached this movie with no great expectations. In fact, I felt pretty cynical about it. I have seen countless movies about dedicated teachers going in to teach inner-city classrooms full of gang members, drug pushers, and kids who can't read at age 14, and by the end of the first semester these teachers have entire classrooms reforming their wicked ways, slavishly devoted to the teacher, and preparing for their SATs or tango competitions or journal publications or whatever. Having taught in two rough schools, I know it doesn't happen like that. I expected The Soloist to feed into those twin American myths: "We can fix anything if we care enough" and "Anyone can become anything if he makes up his mind to it."
I was wrong. The movie is far more honest than that. Lopez gives his all to trying to help Ayers, and he makes some small progress. But he cannot cure Ayers's schizophrenia; he can't even get him on the meds that Ayers refuses to take. He cannot restore Ayers's musical career, not even to the extent of one measly recital (Ayers trashes the stage). He cannot part him from his shopping cart of worthless junk or his weird clothing or his unpredictable rages. Without a trace of sentiment, Lopez -- and the movie -- accepts that good intentions and sincere efforts are sometimes not enough to substantially change a situation, although they may ameliorate it a small bit.
That's a startling admission for an American movie. Usually we want glorious redemption or else total nihilism. Instead we get here a gritty, somewhat weary acceptance. It's not a perfect movie by any means -- there are unnecessary subplots, and other problems -- but Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., are both fabulous in their roles. So why have the reviews been so mixed? Is it possible that even though the film makers (including script writer Susanna Grant) were willing to accept the modest and mixed achievements of real life as worthy of a movie, reviewers are not? WOLVERINE, a stupid movie if there ever was one (yes, I saw it), is a box-office smash. What gives here?