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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The Soloist': Hollywood's latest 'Hate America' movie?

April 24, 2009 | 12:55 pm

With Republicans suddenly outraged about mounting federal deficits -- after running up huge deficits themselves all the years they were in power -- and Dick Cheney suddenly promoting transparency and accountability -- after spending eight years of being involved with the most secretive administration in recent memory -- you can imagine why "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart was moved the other night to diagnose Cheney and Bush White House political strategist Karl Rove with Balzheimer's disease, a crippling affliction that, as Stewart put it, "attacks the memory and gives its victims the balls to attack others for things they themselves made a career of." 

Foxxinthesoloist Forget about Venus vs. Mars. It feels as if conservatives are on Pluto while the rest of us are living in Cleveland. When it comes to the world of entertainment, there's no better example of this strange sense of unreality than seeing the reviews today of "The Soloist," the new film that chronicles the prickly friendship between L.A.  Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) and schizophrenic homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx). The reviews have been very mixed, with critics all seeing something different in the film.

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis views it as a bracing look at L.A.'s "brackish humanity," where the homeless tend to be less visible than in other cities. Time's Mary Pols calls it a "deeply empathetic exploration of mental illness." USA Today's Claudia Puig says the film represents a "moving tribute to friendship and the power of music." And the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern sees it as a film about redemption.  

But what did a conservative critic see? The New York Post's Kyle Smith, writing in Pajamasmedia, says "The Soloist's" message couldn't be more clear: "We're meant to hate Bush and/or America for neglecting the homeless." Of course, Smith presents no evidence of any Bush-bashing in the film. For him, the movie's real sin is that it promotes liberal soft-heartedness by showing concern for the untold numbers of homeless people living on the streets of L.A. He pounces on the fact that the film shows images of American flags, not waving proudly -- as they surely would in a more patriotic film -- but decorating a homeless man's hat or being used as a ragged, skid row pillow.

For Smith, the movie's real agenda becomes apparent in a scene where Lopez tries to have his friend diagnosed and treated with proper medication. When told that Ayers has refused shelter and treatment, Lopez says, "Force him." Even though it's clear from having watched the film that this was a momentary outburst, not a serious solution, Smith seizes on the phrase to make the case for what he sees as liberalism's true agenda.

As he puts it: "Liberal do-goodism doesn't work without coercion. Thus that 'force him.' Force them to take their drugs, force them to live indoors, force them to be better people. It's the liberal project in two words. Two words that prove liberals don't even deserve to be described with a word that means free." He goes on to complain that government (particularly in cities that suffer from what he calls "one-party liberal rule") spends far too much money on homelessness and "the poverty industry" without paying attention to the results. 

I guess we could argue till the cows come home about whether cities should try to help the homeless, as opposed to simply letting them starve or beg for food, writing them off as an intractable social problem beyond our control. But what concerns me is that conservatives -- even smart ones like Smith, who writes one of my favorite film blogs -- have become so blinded by ideology that they can't watch a film without feeling obligated to pick it apart for all its alleged political transgressions. "The Soloist" may have a lot of flaws, but it's a drama, not an anti-American screed. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Photo of Jamie Foxx in "The Soloist" by Francois Duhamel / DreamWorks