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Stage Frights: The Soloist and Is Anybody There?

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Stage Frights: The Soloist and Is Anybody There?

Paramount Pictures

Even if The Soloist, with its hack screenplay by Susannah Grant, didn’t have Robert Downey Jr. (as the real-life LA Times columnist Steve Lopez) slipping on his own spilled piss onto a bathroom stall floor (after answering his cellphone while giving a urine sample), and even if it didn’t also feature Downey, scenes later, getting a leaky bag of bodily fluids full on in the face, the movie would still be a crude fiasco that trivializes the very values it allegedly enshrines.

The narrative follows a chance encounter between Lopez and a homeless violinist named Nathaniel Ayers (here stiffly personified by Jamie Foxx), a schizophrenic street person with a Beethoven fixation, and who was once (supposedly) a promising cellist, a man who briefly attended Juilliard but was too unhinged to amount to much. Shortly before the fateful first meeting of journalist and musician, the British director Joe Wright stages a scene of Lopez amongst his Times colleagues. Although the staffers, seated in their cubicles, don’t appear to be multi-tasking, everyone speaks in an identical rapid-fire delivery, as if they were moth-eaten holdovers from Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page, prattling and rattling on about the loss of readers in this or that demographic. Wright overlaps the dialogue (seemingly to resurrect an Altman touch) yet he overlaps the four voices in such a way that we don’t miss a word; the sequence is so fustily neat, it’s drained of any life-like energy. Wright and Grant mean for us to be supportive onlookers of the journos’ noble calling, but if newspapermen (and –women) are anything like the glib solipsists represented here, then, by all means, the industry deserves to fail.

Having read neither Lopez’s columns on Ayers nor his subsequent book on the same topic, I can only speculate that the first-hand account must have, in some ways, felt moving and true. And undoubtedly there’s a vital, compelling story here somewhere—the sustaining power of classical music within a human soul. But it’s buried—buried deep—under the wrong actors, the wrong director, the wrong script, and the wrong approach.

Grant receives the sole writing credit, yet in the worst Hollywood tradition, her work plays out as if penned by a committee. OK, we got Foley of someone defecating to loop to the aerial tracking shot of a guy on the toilet—check! OK, we got debilitating mental illness portrayed exclusively in horror movie terms—natch! OK, we inserted the sentimental moment of a black mother telling her son she hears God in his cello playing—and so on and on and on. Grant thoroughly falsifies wherever she goes. And Wright consistently obliges her with his own high-falutin’ tastelessness. Perhaps it’s the journalistic milieu, or perhaps the director fancied that he was making a statement on being poor and black and disenfranchised in our land of excess, America; whatever the case, throughout the first hour, Wright blips in footage of Katrina, Bush, the Iraqi war dead. What do these juxtaposed images mean in the context of screechy, major-studio hermeticism? (Screechy not because of Nathaniel’s two-stringed violin, but because much of the scenario unfolds in the middle of highway traffic.) They’re intended to foster the impression that the filmmakers are commenting on something, when in fact the filmmakers are free-associating. Wright, additionally, loves close-ups of wounds, of a drug addict’s fatal injections, the faces of the diseased and deformed. (The Soloist treats urban poverty like something out of Grand Guignol: junkies fistfight against backdrops of chiaroscuro, billowing smoke, and flickering firelight, so that the movie becomes a kind of skid row Phantom of the Opera.)

Furthermore, when Nathaniel acquires a cello and plays for the first time in several years (in front of a rapt audience of Downey and oncoming cars), Wright doesn’t even trust the unadorned resonance of the solo instrument; we hear only a few seconds of the performer’s unaccompanied bowing before the soundtrack swells with the liltingly sweetened uplift of soupy orchestrations. Wright’s idea of rapture consists of showing us a pair of birds flapping and flying over a maze of LA interstates, circling to the swoon of Romantic bombast (that all but drowns out the person we’re supposed to be listening to). What’s worse, this sugared-up notion of classical music, even though it’s performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, doesn’t sound anything like what you’d hear in a concert hall; it sounds more like Jerry Bruckheimer meets Mantovani, and as the end credits roll, there’s this unassailable gem—“music composed by Beethoven, arranged by Dario Marianelli”—a credit that merits its own place in movie history, right alongside “Written by William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.”

What about the two lead performances? They are as mechanical as anything else. Downey recycles the same-old huffy-puffy shtick that he always does, which is all he can do since Grant conceives Lopez as an Everyman cipher. In some shots, he’s meant to be a soulful loner, wandering around the cavernous house that he singularly occupies, listening to Neil Diamond croon “Mr. Bojangles.” In others, he’s the slapstick buffoon dousing himself with the aforementioned urine; and of course, he’s a do-gooder who reacts angrily when Nathaniel can’t get it together to attend a Philharmonic rehearsal. “I’m a professional person!” the columnist spews over the cellist’s schizzy diddling away of valuable time. Is Lopez intended to be smug and self-righteous? With his salt-and-pepper buzz-cut and his inflated chatter about the sanctity of media, he certainly could be a huckster goon gainfully employed by MSNBC. Yet Downey never pushes the role’s limitations into parody; that would be too disrespectful, I imagine.

As for Oscar-recipient Foxx, his face as large-boned as a hockey mask, he has neither the technique nor the inspiration to make Ayers into anything beyond a generic crazie. When pantomiming at violin or cello, Foxx gets by; when he opens his mouth to speak, however, phoniness comes pouring out. He’s been directed to recite his stream-of-consciousness rambles in the exact staccato rhythms of the pompous newspaperpersons. After a while, a long while, of observing Foxx’s one-note interpretation, of watching him guardedly wheel around a treasure trove shopping cart brimming over with festooned junk, as he mutters indecipherably to himself, white greasepaint smudged across his cheeks, nose, and forehead, it occurred to me that Foxx’s Ayers had begun to resemble WALL-E. The homeless man as Disney character—what an achievement.

For some highly inexplicable reason, I had (how many qualifiers can I inject into a single phrase?) sort of, in a mild fit of curiosity, been looking forward to seeing the Michael Caine vehicle Is Anybody There? The notion of Sir Michael playing a magician—a role that might have let him tap into those vaudevillian wellsprings of his, the ones he so artfully conceals a good bit of the time, struck me as—fun, potentially. If the trappings do not burst with promise (and they don’t), there was (I hoped) the bliss of Sir Michael enjoying himself silly pulling rabbits from hats.

Minutes into Is Anybody There?—actually, it would be more accurate to say mere seconds in—two things become painfully unambiguous: the movie’s curdled humor dictates that everyone in this saga set in a seedy old-folks’ home will be paraded around as a freak, regardless of age; and that the scriptwriter Peter Harness, to say nothing of the director John Crowley, will desperately go to any length to avoid having anything to say on any subject. (The movie also fails dismally as “pure” entertainment, whatever that may be.) If Caine’s Clarence (once known as The Amazing Clarence, in his prestidigitatory days on the music hall circuit) reminisces too poignantly over his late wife, why, let’s chase that scene with screeching tires and a car crash, a crash, I might add, that advances the slender reed of a storyline not an iota. Or there’s this: an elderly woman collapses and dies the instant before her estranged daughter arrives on the boarding house steps. (The mother had so been looking forward to the reunion.) What does Crowley do? He strikes up a band of kazoo players on the soundtrack, as we watch two skinny persons hoist the deceased’s corpulent corpse up a stairwell. (Visually, the movie’s astoundingly ugly, which should come as no surprise—its low-lit, dingy horrors match its desiccated formula of morbid-equals-cute.)

Eventually, Clarence, who has staggered through his every waking hour at the retirement home in stoic misery or in tears, finds himself cajoled into performing at a child’s birthday party, to dust off that conjurer’s wand, to doff that top hat in the service of illusion.

But by that point the only magic trick I wanted to see Caine perform was to make this entire film disappear.