United States, 2009
U.S. Release Date:
PG-13 (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Robert Downey, Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander
Susannah Grant, based on the book by Steve Lopez
One of the most difficult things for a filmmaker to accomplish is to craft a drama that provides emotional satisfaction without resorting to overt manipulation. Director Joe Wright has thus far achieved this twice, with a superlative adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and a version of Atonement. Perhaps Keira Knightley (who was in those movies but is not in this one) is his muse or maybe Wright's talents are not well suited for this adaptation of Steve Lopez's true-life book. Whatever the case, this motion picture strikes enough wrong notes to keep it out of the must-see category. It's not hard to understand why Paramount pulled The Soloist from its original pre-Oscar December 2008 slot for the less competitive purgatory of late April - quite simply, this is not Oscar caliber material.
The Soloist recounts the interaction between Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) and a homeless man by the name of Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx). When Steve is first drawn to Nathaniel, it's because of music being played by the latter on a violin with only two strings. After Steve learns that Nathaniel was once enrolled in Julliard, a column is born. The two spend time together and Steve becomes obsessed with providing a better life for Nathaniel - obtaining a new instrument for him, getting him off the street and into a shelter, providing him with a music teacher (Tom Hollander), and arranging a recital. The problem is that Nathaniel is afflicted with schizophrenia and his moments of lucidity come and go. At times, he can hold conversations with Steve. On other occasions, he becomes withdrawn and sometimes violent.
The problem with The Soloist is that, while Wright shows admirable restraint in dramatizing the interaction between the two principals and does not fall into the trap of following a "movie of the week" formula about mental illness, there is little emotional resonance in the story. The distance between the audience and the characters is such that it becomes difficult to become engaged in the movie on a level other than the intellectual. One might argue that Shine went too far down the feel-good path, but there's no denying its ultimate power to arouse; The Soloist is afflicted with a lack of passion. There story lacks a strong trajectory; it meanders, seemingly unsure of precisely what it wants to do and say and where it wants to go.
There are times during The Soloist when Wright is guilty of injecting too much of himself into the proceedings. On several occasions, Wright's stylistic choices seem to be more a case of a filmmaker showing off than employing the most effective storytelling devices. For example, when Nathaniel is descending into madness during a flashback, the camera becomes jittery and there are numerous rapid cuts. The soundtrack supplies multiple, overlapping voices. The objective is to invite the viewer to participate in the unhinging of Nathaniel's mind, a first-person perspective of schizophrenia. Unfortunately, it feels artificial and contrived. A similar comment can be made about the scene in which the screen is suffused with colors during a musical interlude. It looks like a computer screen saver or the kind of thing one might expect from amateur experimentation.
Whatever faults may be found with Wright's approach or the screenplay's structure, there's no question that Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx earn their salaries. To the extent that The Soloist is worth seeing, it's to experience the interaction between these two performers, both of whom fully embody their characters. The importance of the Downey Jr./Foxx dynamic to the movie is most evident when one or both is missing from a scene - the intensity drops off noticeably. With less accomplisher actors, one suspects The Soloist might have come perilously close to unwatchability, or at least the awkwardness of Reign Over Me.
Perhaps the most interesting casting choice in the movie is that, for scenes set on Los Angeles' Skid Row, Wright elected to film on location and use the homeless as extras. This gives many of those scenes a sense of verisimilitude. It makes the plight of the homeless more poignant and provides a perspective of why so many homeless choose to live on their own, out of shopping carts, away from shelters. This is only a subtext of The Soloist, but it's an effective one - more effective, in fact, than the main story.
As one might expect from a "based on a true story" motion pictures, some of the facts have been altered to fit the needs of a screenplay. (For example, in real life, Steve Lopez is happily married, not divorced as he is in the movie.) The real Lopez has maintained, however, that corners were not cut in the representation of Nathaniel and the character in the film is an accurate mirror of his friend. As a book, Lopez's account of his relationship with Nathaniel is compelling; it is considerably less so in movie form. Much of the story's humanity comes from Lopez's writing, and that is lost in the screenplay (despite occasional voiceover excerpts). The Soloist is neither wrongheaded nor inept, but it is strangely inert. Of all the things I might have expected, leaving the theater largely unconcerned about either of the characters was not one of them, yet that is what happened.
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