Movie Review: The Soloist (2009)

Fandango - Movie Tickets Online

Bookmark this on Delicious
submit to reddit
Print Page


Similar to the old adage that there’s no “I” in team—most reporters will tell you that there should be no “I” when it comes to covering the news. However, this rule is immediately overlooked for those not working via the inverted pyramid style lead-heavy cover stories of the A & B sections. For, as once we venture into the realm of columnists and feature writing-- part of the charm of a solid article is a writer’s ability to interject their own personality into a piece to add a unique flavor to slice-of-life vignettes.

It’s when the writer has to negotiate the balance of understanding that on a cynical level you may be exploiting another to sell papers and earn a heavily read byline and where your responsibility lies to a fellow human being that makes this an ethical gray area for journalists. And of course, this dichotomy is made doubly complex when one’s subject is physically and/or mentally disabled and one isn’t quite sure whether or not they actually have “permission” to begin writing about a person who seems lost in his own world.

Such is the case of British filmmaker Joe Wright’s first American film, The Soloist, which finds the award-winning Pride and Prejudice and Atonement director leaving his homeland to-- as he explained-- blend “Hollywood and British realism together,” for a piece “that might benefit from his distinctly outsider’s point of view.”

The film, which centers on two very different outsiders in its unique approach of a male friendship love story benefits from the dedication shown for the material via Erin Brockovich screenwriter Susannah Grant’s adaptation of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez’s feature articles that began in the spring of 2005 about a homeless, schizophrenic, exceedingly talented Julliard trained musician.

The Soloist-- which stars Robert Downey Jr. fresh off his 2008 blockbuster run as Iron Man and the all-time method actor in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder as Lopez-- manages to engage us in an action oriented beginning wherein he’s injured in a bike accident and told he is going to be disoriented for four to six weeks.

However, Grant (or perhaps the film’s editor) inexplicably drops the thread of this great set-up and lead-in to Lopez’s first encounter with Jamie Foxx’s Nathaniel Anthony Ayers that-- handled a bit more directly-- may have helped give us a better sense of who these two men truly are. Instead of implying that perhaps they may have bonded precisely because they may have shared a similar sense of being a bit out-of-sync with the Los Angeles surroundings-- as depicted, Lopez’s character simply appears as though he’s just fishing for a story idea by any means necessary.

Thus, essentially starting the film twice with two introductions to our lead character and still a bit confused about his true personality-- the compelling “initial opening” feels like a first draft that gets discarded when the “new one” takes over. This kicks off as Lopez finds himself drawn to the charismatic but rambling, manic, mile-a-minute soloist currently spending his time on the streets of Skid Row, passionately serenading the environment and the wondrous statue of his idol, Ludwig Van Beethoven with his badly worn two-stringed violin.

When Lopez discovers that Ayers’ story checks out and he did indeed study at Julliard—the reporter in him takes over and as the positive reader response pours in with endless e-mails, Lopez continues to seek out Ayers learning that he’s moved locations to now performing in a busy Los Angeles tunnel as cars fly by.

With the gift of a cello sent in by a caring reader, Lopez takes it upon himself to at least attempt to get Ayers back onto his feet—as much as he can anyway—by encouraging him to stay at the Lamp Community, which is an “advocacy group that offers nearly 200 private apartments for the homeless.”

Frustrated by the potential of the undeniably gifted musician and the possibility that all it could take to set him back on the path to life as a professional musician is the right psychiatric medication, Lopez tries to morally and ethically rationalize just how involved he should get with the man who begins as simply his subject but becomes a true friend as the story continues.

A rare glimpse into a community that Wright cites as the reason he made the film—namely Los Angeles’ Skid Row—which he describes as a group of “people [who] are the most disenfranchised people in American society and don’t generally have a voice,” Wright takes great pains to take a movie he initially envisioned as one that was stylistically influenced by John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy in its gritty depiction of honest male friendship into something that later he ended up blending with the social reality of Italian neorealism and docudrama.

All in all, it's an intense work that boasts predictably excellent turns by its leads especially Jamie Foxx. Still, more often than not, the well-intentioned and big-hearted film falters throughout with some scenes that feel as though they are figuratively hitting you over the head as “message” moments as opposed to the more seemingly natural situations utilized in Mike Binder’s fictitious yet far more authentic work Reign Over Me starring Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler.

And while these failures of over-wrought sequences in The Soloist are possibly again the fault of the editing process as it ultimately abandons subtlety in favor of driving its very valid but extremely repetitive and—ironically-- exploitative points home, an unhealthy portion seems far too forced. For in certain instances, even a talent such as Downey appears as though he’s just hitting his marks a few times by angrily shouting or kicking something to show just how much he cares.

Despite this—the cinematography by Wright’s Oscar nominated Atonement lensman Seamus McGarvey which was painstakingly storyboarded and captured via 35mm anamorphic format to give The Soloist as McGarvey explains “an even stronger sense of veracity,” is a standout as we’re swept away by the dazzling bird’s eye view shots of the city of isolated Los Angeles residents.

While aside from one Disney Hall sequence ruined by setting Beethoven’s third symphony to a near parade of colorful flashing lights straight out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—it’s the visuals that leave us breathless as well as the strong sense of music that fills every scene from not only the classical sources but also from the Oscar winning Atonement composer Dario Marianelli.

Last week, it was listed as one of the four most recent recipients of Heartland’s Truly Moving Picture Awards, while the uneven Soloist is filled with the positive message of the importance of human connection, compassion and friendship, it’s also one in which thankfully Grant—taking a cue from Lopez’s writing from both the column and his subsequent book—attributes the relationship as having benefits for both the journalist and the musician.

And although it’s hard to fault Joe Wright’s admirable intention to bring the devastating problem of homelessness in Los Angeles to attention—more often than not, the Skid Row sequences overpower the plight of Lopez and Ayers, throwing the narrative off balance and indicating that Wright was really trying to squeeze two different films into one and the humanistic tale of two unlikely friends is the one that ultimately suffers, which may have been why this film’s release date was continually pushed back from the fall of 2008.

However, one benefit is—considering a few of the artistic liberties taken with the facts and the reminder given the film’s flawed structure that the columns were all jumbled together for dramatic effect—in the end Wright and Grant do manage to call much needed attention to the dying newspaper industry.

Therefore, despite the fact that contrary to the true art-form of feature writing, the “I” and the “reporting” get jumbled together in this big screen version of Lopez’s articles—the filmmakers of The Soloist succeed mightily in making those of us still left with unanswered questions want to read Lopez’s original columns either through the L.A. Times or captured in book form.