2009, PG-13, 116 min. Directed by Joe Wright. Starring Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Tom Hollander, Nelsan Ellis, Stephen Root.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 24, 2009
With all the hallmarks of a prestige picture, chief among them a great cast and creative crew and an “important” message, The Soloist plays its tune with a frequently heavy hand. Director Wright, who scored such great success with the British costumers Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, seems on less sure footing in his first American feature. Foxx and Downey Jr. are superlative, as usual (and Keener is thoroughly wasted, as is too often the case), but the actors’ performances take on a shambling quality, as though the actors were lacking a clear through line. Based on a book by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez and adapted for the screen by Erin Brockovich screenwriter Susannah Grant, the movie brings to life the journalist’s experiences while befriending a homeless man with schizophrenia who is a Juilliard-trained cellist. Steve Lopez (played by Downey Jr., who is here cast for at least the fourth time in his career as a journalist: Zodiac; Natural Born Killers; and Good Night, and Good Luck) first happens upon Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx) while trolling for a topic for his column, “Points West.” His discovery of this semicoherent, colorfully attired street tramp proves a gold mine, which provides a wealth of columns that recount his experiences getting to know Ayers while trying to provide him with help and friendship. This is the more likable aspect of the movie’s progression. The film exposes the dual-edged sword of good intentions as it shows the obstacles people experience while trying to remain honest and honorable in their dealings with the minions of the street, both sane and insane. What begins as an unequal relationship, perhaps even exploitative, takes on more dimensions as Lopez finds his desire to do good becoming overwhelmed by his fear of total responsibility for and possible harm by the unpredictable Ayers. That’s the kind of nuanced relationship that can thrive onscreen, and Downey Jr. is the right actor to deliver that blend of cocksureness and intellectual turmoil. Would that Wright trusted his actors to do more of the film’s heavy lifting. Instead, he literalizes a great deal of Ayers’ dementia in ways that add nothing substantial to our understanding of his plight and that seem to be simply the filmmaker’s frills. Cutaways to scenes of Ayers’ childhood and Juilliard years seem like interruptions in the storyline and reveal few insights. Worse is the abstract sequence in which we get to see the amoebic light show that is Ayers’ mind when he listens to music. (Implicit warning: There but for a tab of acid go you and I.) The Soloist should be appreciated for hewing to the truth in its reluctance to sign off with a conventionally happy ending, even if it does so with a pointed message about the problem of homelessness in America. In the end, The Soloist can take a bow for its effort but shouldn’t be expecting any encores.
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The Soloist, Joe Wright, Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Tom Hollander, Nelsan Ellis, Stephen Root