Year Released: 2009
Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx,
(PG-13, 105 min.)
"A friend is a gift your give yourself." Robert Louis Stevenson
This story of a classically trained, now homeless cellist and the journalist who befriends him has everything you deserve to expect, except the clichés. Based on a true story, its tenderness is reined in by an underlying reality that actually augments the scintillating performances by the two leads.
It helps that our journalist, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), is a semi-rebellious risk taker who is turned on rather than off by the schizophrenic mutterings of the two-stringed violin player he meets under a statue of Beethoven not far from his LA Times office. And at the time, Lopez, his face a bruised and bloodied mask because of a recent bicycle crash, does not look that different from the raggedly flamboyant Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx). Of course, it’s not so much altruism as his nose for a good story that fuels Lopez’s friendship at first. And Ayers is incredibly good copy at that, almost as good at that outrageous lab named Marley, without all the shredded couches and eviscerated garages to go along with him.
That’s not to say the Juilliard School of Music dropout doesn’t have a few quirks, though. One is his obsession with litter control, even if he does his picking up of the stray cigarette butt in the midst of oncoming traffic. Nathaniel is also inordinately attached to his shopping cart of treasures, refusing to go anywhere without it, even if it is to a dress rehearsal of a Beethoven concert at the posh Disney Hall and Music Center.
Catherine Keene is excellent as Lopez’s editor and strangely fond ex wife, who alternately scolds and cajoles him as he nurtures his relationship with Nathaniel. When Lopez wants to withdraw from that taxing commitment, not quite comfortable on the pedestal Nathaniel has placed him, she scoffs that he is more comfortable with merely exploiting the so called friendship, a charge that seems to have a personal edge to it as well. In fact, the mostly friendly banter is so steeped in a “life is stranger than fiction” uniqueness, that I was disappointed to learn this angle was apparently dreamed up for the film and not part of Lopez’s book.
Other aspects of The Solist are quite authentic, such as the role of the Lamp Community, an LA based nonprofit that helps people living with severe mental illness move from the streets to homes. Its website boasts an 85% success rate in doing so. Several of these individuals are featured as actors and extras in the film, which lends an almost documentary feel at times.
In particular I remember the words of one participant in group therapy who gives a simple yet poignant description of her medication. “I can feel the voices starting to rise, and I know the pills will make them go down. But I miss them because sometimes the voices, they comfort me.” The director has some wisdom for Lopez, who thinks the twin magic bullets -- diagnosis and medication – can cure Nathaniel. “Do you think these people have not been diagnosed, dozens of times? And it hasn’t done much good for any of them, “ he tells a properly chastened Lopez.
Lopez’s stories about Nathaniel motivate others to help as well. An elderly reader who can no longer play because of arthritis donates her cello, and the mayor pledges more funding for the homeless. A professional cellist offers free lessons, though unfortunately, his contribution is pictured with some cynicism, while the possible political expediency of the mayor is never brought up. It seems the cellist is a devout Christian, a somewhat dubious affiliation, according to the film, and his portrayal is tinged with some condescension and caricature.
Like that fragile package we call life, this film is strewn with small triumphs and disasters, with dreams acknowledged but never quite attained, with the bittersweet rewards of friendship, and a future both unpredictable and filled with promise.
Nathaniel’s favorite composer is Beethoven. He literally worships the man and is in a state of ecstasy when he hears or plays his compositions. It might surprise him that his musical mentor had a few things to say about cooking as well as music.
One of his most famous quotes: “Only the pure of heart can make a great soup.”
Unfortunately, the young Nathaniel, in the throes of his mental illness, does not appreciate the pure heart of his sister who dared venture into his basement retreat to bring him soup. He not only rejects it, but forces it upon her, the warm liquid melding with her tears as she flees the room.
Maybe we can give Nathaniel another try with this German soup from Beethoven’s homeland. It contains apples as well as applejack brandy. What’s not to like?
German Apple Onion Soup
2 pounds onions, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup butter
1 (49.5 fluid ounce) can chicken broth
1 (14 ounce) can beef consommé
1 (12 fluid ounce) can frozen apple juice concentrate, thawed
2 cups apple juice
1/4 cup applejack brandy or Calvados
1 pinch white pepper, or to taste
1 Granny Smith apple - peeled, cored and thinly sliced
Set aside about 1/2 cup of the onions to use later as a garnish. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion, and cook until the onion has softened and turned translucent but not browned, about 10 minutes. Pour in the chicken broth, beef consomme, apple juice concentrate, apple juice, and applejack liquor. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat and season with the white pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer 1 hour.
To serve, place a pinch of the reserved raw onions in the bottom of a soup bowl. Ladle the soup into the bowls, and float a few slices of apple on top to serve.
Recipe Source: allrecipes.com