Film Review with Robert Mann – The Soloist
The Soloist ***½
With the awards season getting closer and closer once again we have one of the first of this year’s Oscar hopefuls in the form of The Soloist, a film which wears its Oscar aspirations on its sleeve, although reviews from its release in the states (and even some that have come in over here) suggest that it may well be setting its reach too high. In theory at least it certainly has all the ingredients of an Oscar nominee (if not a winner), with Oscar winner Jamie Foxx taking on the lead role and Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr. as his co-star, not to mention an inspirational true life story (something which has been pushed quite heavily, often a sign of awards hopefulness). However, whether or not director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice and Atonement) is really the right man to do the story justice is the real question.
Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is a journalist for the LA Times. His marriage is falling apart and a professional crisis has left him struggling to find the inspiration for his next column. Then one day, when walking through LA’s Skid Row, he sees a bedraggled homeless man playing beautiful music on a two-stringed violin. The man is Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a schizophrenic former child prodigy and Julliard student turned street musician who could have played packed concert halls the world over but actually wound up living rough in the tunnels and doorways of Los Angeles. While Steve begins to unearth the truth behind Nathaniel’s extraordinary life, the two men start to forge an unlikely friendship and begin to enrich and change each other’s lives in ways they never thought possible.
If nothing else there is one thing in The Soloist that does live up to its Oscar aspirations – Jamie Foxx. Following his award winning turn as Ray Charles in Ray, Foxx once again delivers a pitch perfect performance of a music virtuoso, with him bringing the character of Nathaniel to vibrant life, excellently capturing all the mannerisms and speech patterns that would be associated with his schizophrenic condition. This is a character who is completely believable and one who you will not be able to help feeling for, a man who has struggled all his life with homelessness and mental instability yet hasn’t given up in the face of adversity thanks to his one passion in life – music. The success of the character can be partly attributed to strong character development, of course, with screenwriter Susannah Grant providing numerous flashbacks that give important insights into the character, showing us exactly how he ended up in his current situation. Really though it is Foxx who makes it work and he really deserves an Oscar nomination. In the face of such a great performance Robert Downey Jr. couldn’t possibly stand up so well but, despite the character not being developed as well, a few scenes towards the end being pretty much it as far as back story is concerned, he delivers a strong performance and he shares a very good on screen chemistry with Foxx, with the relationship between Steve and Nathaniel seeming true to life and coming across as charming and endearing. The film is bolstered heavily by these two lead performances but the film doesn’t impress as much in other areas. Joe Wright, while not doing a bad job as director, doesn’t seem to be quite the right man to make the film as good as it could be. The commentary on the plight of the homeless and mentally challenged in Los Angeles is touching (and realistic thanks to the use of real locations – the true Los Angeles as opposed to the artificiality of Hollywood and Beverly Hills – and real homeless people as cast members) but it often seems like more of a distraction from the true story than a supporting point and it isn’t really put across with enough bravado to really make the impact it seems to be aiming for. Also, while Wright does manage to provide some quite beautiful visual flourishes, such as shots of birds flying through the air while Nathaniel performs on his violin, many of these are lacking true visual innovation, some being almost generic. Another flaw in the film is certain instances of humour that are present. Some of the humour is very welcome and a number of sequences feel completely at home and are extremely charming but other (possibly unintentional) humorous scenes just seem completely out of place, being little more than passable gags that have no value in a film such as this. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have some great points though. Despite a storyline that meanders from one scene to the next, without that great a flow, the tale is still beautiful, moving and inspirational, something which is definitely supported by the music, most of which may move you to tears. Ultimately it is this music that is really at the heart of the film, so despite many of the flaws that prevent The Soloist from being a true masterpiece of cinema it still has enough qualities to make it worth seeing. If nothing else see it for Jamie Foxx.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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