Directed by: Joe Wright (Atonement)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Nelsan Ellis
Now that Joe Wright’s failed Oscar bait, The Soloist, has also fared poorly at the box office, maybe Mr. Wright will have gotten over his mania for the award-worthy and get back to the business of making the movies his 2005 debut feature Pride and Prejudice suggested he had in him. This isn’t to say that The Soloist is a bad movie, but the best that can be said of it is that it qualifies as an honorable failure. After finally seeing the film, there’s no longer much mystery as to why the studio pulled it from awards season. It’s equally easy to see why it was considered in that realm in the first place.
Everything about The Soloist screams quality production—highly rated director and even more highly rated stars, Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., and a message-heavy “true-life” story. What more could you ask for in terms of catching Oscar’s eye? Well, it might have helped if anyone had settled on just what message the movie was trying to convey. And it might have helped even more if Wright and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Catch and Release) had settled on what kind of movie they were making. In the end, what they achieved is something of an unwieldy mess.
The film is based on Steve Lopez’s book—drawn from his series of Los Angeles Times articles—about his meetings and subsequent friendship with a homeless schizophrenic, Nathaniel Ayers, who turns out to have once been a musical prodigy and a Julliard student. Lopez is played by Robert Downey Jr. and Ayers is played by Jamie Foxx, and these performances are both in the film’s favor, but they aren’t enough to hold the proceedings together. And these are proceedings badly in need of being held together, because the film wanders all over the map with peculiar notions of dramatic necessity. Why, for example, does the film find it necessary to invent marital strife between Lopez and his wife (Catherine Keener)? What function does this serve? What’s the point in inserting a running gag involving Lopez’s ongoing battle with raccoons in his yard? It’s mildly amusing watching Downey tussle with a bag of raccoon-repellent coyote urine, but what it has to do with the story escapes me.
The central problem with the film is addressed in the movie itself when Lopez says he doesn’t want to make a book out of his articles concerning Ayers because it’s a story without an ending. That’s the film’s difficulty, too. It has nowhere it can really go. Ayers isn’t going to magically get better and play Carnegie Hall (or Disney Hall, to keep with the film) for a big finale, so instead the movie merely wanders around—touching on more problems than it can digest or effectively address—until a sufficient running time has been reached. The film eventually wraps things up in a simplistic bit of wisdom from Lopez’s wife and pretty much just stops, followed by a tepid shot at a “feel-good” tag scene.
Yes, the performances are good. And yes, Wright’s direction is often assured and creative, though his attempts to show how music has the ability to transport Ayers out of his shadow world are a very mixed bag. The use of soaring pigeons isn’t bad. There’s also a thrilling tracking shot on Ayers as he listens to Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, but what’s the payoff for that shot? Something that seems like an eternity of trippy-colored lights—an effect my Windows Media Player pulls off more impressively. And no, seeing it 30-odd feet wide doesn’t enhance its essential computer-gimmick lameness. In the end, it’s that sense of lameness that colors this whole mishmash of a movie. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.