A Colorful Pair: Steve Lopez's relationship with Ayers grows beyond his newspaper column.
Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures
Remember when Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle, "I knew Jack Kennedy ... Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy"? I felt a little like that when it came to reviewing The Soloist and I saw what Hollywood had done to a story that began as a series of columns in the Los Angeles Times.
The story of Steve Lopez's friendship with a gifted but deeply troubled street musician certainly had the makings of a good movie. The columnist heard a violin on the mean streets of downtown L.A. and followed its sounds to a bust of Beethoven in a city park. There he made the acquaintance of a homeless paranoid-schizophrenic man named Nathaniel Ayers.
The musician turned out to have a astonishing back story: Once upon a time, he was enrolled in New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music — a classmate, in fact, of the celebrated Yo-Yo Ma.
But though I had a lot of reasons to embrace this film, finally I just can't, and not only because Robert Downey Jr. and Lopez don't look anything alike. I mean, did Marlon Brando resemble Napoleon? Did John Wayne look anything like Genghis Khan? Get a grip, Ken; it's time to move on.
The reason I'm frustrated by The Soloist is that the film relentlessly overplays everything. When Ayers gets to hear a concert in Disney Hall, we can't just enjoy the moment. Instead, director Joe Wright has to treat us to a psychedelic light show left over from Jefferson Airplane playing the Fillmore.
Even more frustrating is that all this happens in the name of doing good in the world, of making the story's powerful lessons about friendship and mental illness more palatable to a wider audience. But a story this good doesn't need a light show to get its point across. Not even close.