Robert Downey, Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener
Susannah Grant (based upon book by Steve Lopez)
There are fleeting moments in which "The Soloist" is a magnificent film.
Then, there are the other moments. These are the moments during which "The Soloist" is a maddening and frustrating film that drowns in its self-importance and exaggerated imagery.
"The Soloist" is, much like its central character Nathaniel Ayers, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a remarkable example of potential left unfulfilled.
Based upon a book and series of columns by Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), "The Soloist" is based upon the true story of Ayers, who grew up poor in your typical urban nightmare. Having taken up the cello in school because it was an easy to obtain instrument that other children didn't want to play, Ayers embraced what quickly became obvious as a true gift for nearly all things musical. With his mother's constant reminders that music would be his way out of the ghetto, Ayers landed at Juilliard.
Then, the voices came.
While "The Soloist" never really defines Ayers' mental illness, it hints strongly at schizophrenia being the cause of Ayers' rapid descent from the heights of musical promise to the streets of Los Angeles playing a two stringed fiddle because it's easier to carry and less likely to be stolen. When Lopez stumbles upon Ayers one day, expertly playing a piece from his beloved Beethoven, a series of columns is borne that will challenge Lopez, challenge Ayers and challenge a community that too often regards the homeless as throwaways.
One of the key problems with "The Soloist" is that Foxx can't decide if he wants to again channel music legend Ray Charles or he wants to dissolve into a sea of mental health stereotypes not too far removed from Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s godawful spin in the supposedly inspirational "Radio."
Foxx does both here, and he does so sweepingly. In one moment, Foxx is swaying rhythmically to and fro just as he did in winning the Oscar for "Ray," then before we know it falls back into the unintelligible mumblings of a man whose entire adulthood has been lived on the fringes of society.
Foxx's overwrought performance is equally matched by Joe Wright's uneven direction, at times giving "The Soloist" such an air of importance that it seems we've stumbled across an inner city version of "Pride & Prejudice." Wright does seem an unusual choice for such a film, having most recently directed the critically acclaimed films "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement." What on earth made anyone think he was ready to tackle such an emotionally complex and multi-layered story?
So many scenes, filled to the brim with authentic human emotion and drama, are jerked back and forth by Wright's domineering imagery and histrionic editing.
Seriously, did a scene involving Ayers completely surrendered to playing his new cello really need to be further hyped with the echos of a full orchestra in the background, birds flying overhead and the clouds parting?
In one scene, Lopez's drunken partner blurts out a stream-of-consciousness implying that Lopez is exploiting this homeless man who now, quite literally, worships him as a god. One could very nearly say the same thing for Wright's film, a film that so clearly embraces its importance that, at times, Wright's direction very nearly sabotages its own ideals.
"The Soloist" is redeemed by Robert Downey, Jr.'s usual standout performance, here refusing to over-sentimentalize Lopez. Downey's Lopez is a writer...simply a writer who discovers a magnificent story and finds himself unfathomably changed as the story twists and turns, folds and unfolds. Catherine Keener, as well, shines as Lopez's editor, partner and voice of reason.
While Susannah Grant's script takes a few liberties with the actual story, like portraying Lopez as divorced rather than the happily married man that he is, she succeeds quite often in capturing the awkward dance between the journalist and his story. The dialogue is generally crisp, though scenes in the skid row shelter where Ayers eventually plants himself are a tad preachy and it's difficult to fathom the necessity in including not one but two urine-themed comic scenes.
"The Soloist" was originally intended as 2008 Oscar bait, likely solely as a result of Wright's early cinematic successes with "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement." While "The Soloist" is certainly not a cinematic dud, it falls dramatically short of Wright's earlier films and, given its challenging subject matter, is unlikely to be more than a modest success at the box-office unless Foxx and Downey, Jr's fans decide to show up in droves.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic