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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > The Soloist

MOVIE REVIEWS

THE SOLOIST (2009)

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander and Lisa Gay Hamilton.

Screenplay by Susannah Grant.

Directed by Joe Wright.

Distributed by DreamWorks Pictures.  116 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

 

The Soloist

The Soloist is one of those films that you really want to love, but end up feeling no more than a slightly detached respect for it.  Everything about The Soloist – the writing, the acting, the direction, the subject matter – all are top notch.  Yet, somehow, this film feels more like one of those movies you are supposed to like than one of those movies you really enjoy. 

It’s a double disappointment for me, because it is a true story about a newspaper reporter whom I very much respect.  In interest of full disclosure, I very slightly know Steve Lopez from his days at The Philadelphia Inquirer.  I am also a huge fan of his writing, having read years of his columns as well as his novels Third and Indiana and In the Clear.  I have not read The Soloist – which is probably his biggest-selling book – just because I have somewhat lost track of his writing since he moved, first to New York for Time magazine and then to the west coast for The Los Angeles Times. 

I had vaguely heard of the book, in which reporter Lopez (well played, as always, by Robert Downey, Jr.) befriends a homeless, schizophrenic man named Nathaniel Ayres (Jamie Foxx) and eventually learns the man was a Juilliard-educated cellist.  It was apparently a best seller and sounds like a fascinating story.  However, the movie version of it – even if it is accurate to the source material – feels like it is trying so hard to be artistic and Oscar-worthy that it forgets that it is trying to tell a dirty and downbeat story about homelessness and mental illness.  There is a fine line between empathy and manipulation – a line which The Soloist trips over many times. 

Probably the biggest problem with the movie version of The Soloist is that it is a very ill fit for its celebrated director.  Though Joe Wright has specialized in film versions of books – his two previous works were the Oscar-worthy Pride and Prejudice and Atonement – his style works for old costume dramas but not so much for the skid row areas of downtown Los Angeles.  In one scene, Wright portrays a late night scene of junkies, thieves, whores, vagrants, etc.  He does it as an extended take, somewhat similarly to his long swooping war scenes at Dunkirk in Atonement.  However, here it just feels jumbled and overwrought – a circle of Dante’s underworld on the nickel in LA. 

It’s a bit of a shame, because there is a fascinating and under-explored condition here, though it is often overwhelmed by the amped-up drama which is ladled on in the film

A huge part of the problem is the Ayres himself.  This is a man who is obviously seriously disturbed and it makes it hard to relate to him.  Yes, at certain times, Ayer is completely coherent and lucid, but just as often he becomes withdrawn and violent.  When Lopez tries – in his good-intentioned but occasionally somewhat naïve way – to help this disturbed man by offering him a cello, getting him to take lessons, even getting him an apartment – he seems to forget that the man does not have the needs or wants that most people have.  When Lopez gets him an apartment so that he can live safely, Ayers refuses, explaining that he is afraid of walls. 

While Ayers is a very talented musician, the sheer force of music can not quiet his demons – a tough, complex dichotomy which The Soloist acknowledges at the same time that it seems to be cheerleading for the impossible.  Lopez – and we the audience – are being a little unrealistic expecting for Ayers to become well through love of his art.  Music may be a temporary bandage for the man, but he needs significantly more help than any concerto can offer.  And Foxx’s acting in the role, a mixture of Rain Man and I Am Sam, just points out that the man may very well be too far gone for any happy ever after. 

Strangely, there is a scene where you see how good this film could have been, and it has nothing to do with the story of Ayres.  At one point, Lopez sits in on a group therapy session at a LA homeless shelter.  A schizophrenic homeless woman is explaining why she does not like to take her meds.  The meds quiet the voices in her head, she explains, but sometimes those voices helped to soothe her. 

Had The Soloist included more subtle and insightful scenes like this one, it may have gotten the Oscar nominations that it so obviously covets.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 27, 2009.

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Copyright ©2009   PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 27, 2009.

 

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