New film “The Soloist” Features (and slightly mocks) Atheists

April 22, 2009

In the new film   The Soloist , which opens April 24, is about an   L.A. Times columnist Mr. Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) who discovers a musically gifted but tragically schizophrenic man (Jamie Foxx) living homeless on the streets. The reporter does his best to piece together both the man’s history and his life. It’s a decent feel-good tearjerker, a grade-B version of   Shine or   A Beautiful Mind .

More interestingly, however, the film has a brief scene in which the reporter is writing a column about an atheist group that has sponsored a road sign, and pledged to clean and maintain a section of the Los Angeles highways. Lopez is seen near a highway interviewing a spokesman for the atheist group.  (I don’t recall if the sign mentioned an actual, recognizable atheist organization or not; it could have been something generic like "Atheists for America.")

The spokesman is depicted as well-intended and good natured, but somewhat dorky as he answers Lopez’s questions about what atheists believe. I’m paraphrasing here, but one question was, "So you don’t believe anything? Do you gather and not-worship?" It’s delivered as an off-the-cuff joke, and got a laugh from the audience. The atheist, bedecked in a colorful road crew vest, seemed slightly confused by the question but gamely said yes. The scene is interrupted by a cell phone call as the atheist road cleaning representative stands in the background, looking slightly puzzled.

The depiction of the atheist was not explicitly derogatory, but nor was it very positive. The impression left was that the man was ill-equipped as a spokesperson for atheism or secular humanism, and seemed unsure of how to respond to questions about his (lack of) faith. To be fair, other parts of the film show Christians in a less than favorable light at times, such as when Foxx is confused (and clearly unhelped and unmoved) by a fundamentalists’s fervert proclamations that God is with them. Foxx’s character even at one point regards Lopez as his God, and the film’s realistic depictions of the disturbed, desperate, and downtrodden L.A. homeless makes the audience wonder where, in the seamy side of the City of Angels, God fits in.