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The Soloist: Many Notes Played, Few Strike a Chord

Joe Wright is clearly a director to watch in the next decade. He has shown a disregard for convention and a flair for using sound, light, and unusual images in an attempt to enhance the emotional impact of his story. In Atonement, these effects– such as the long tracking shot on the beach and the “confessional” ending– packed the biggest punches in the film. However, in The Soloist, Wright throws so much at you in an attempt to enhance the film that it ends up feeling like an “inspirational film” that’s short on inspiration. The performances are as good as you would expect, but between the narration, the flashbacks, the jumps in time, and all of the Wright touches, it lacks cohesiveness. You admire the parts that make up the whole, but the whole leaves you wanting.

Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is a writer for the LA Times. He has a bike accident and, after being rushed to the hospital in an impoverished part of Los Angeles, he captures a glimpse of how unfortunate these folks have it. Shortly after this experience, he meets Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man playing a violin who speaks in confusing run-on sentences yet shows occasional flashes of clarity. He tells Lopez he went to Juilliard, and spotting a potential human interest article, he finds out Ayers is telling the truth. Lopez begins researching into his life and his stories go to print. Since it turns out Ayers’ specialty was the cello, a moved reader sends Lopez a cello in sterling shape. The rest of the film follows Lopez’s attempts to move Ayers to a community that cares for the homeless, his revelations on the conditions that homeless people live in, and his pursuit of helping Ayers find a better position for himself in life, despite his mental illness.

Is there anyone who has had a better run over the last five years than Robert Downey Jr.? Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Good Night and Good Luck, A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac, Iron Man, Tropic Thunder, and now this. He is doing some consistently terrific work, picking projects which flawlessly fit his surefooted fast-talking confidence, and the movie works best when we’re focused on the star and his emotional journey. Jamie Foxx does fine work portraying the schizophrenia– better here than in Ray, which I felt was more of an impression than a full embodiment of a character– but did the filmmakers have to dress him in such ridiculous costumes the entire film? It’s like having someone shout at the audience, “Look at how wacky and crazy he is!!” From Foxx’s performance and the dialogue alone, we would have understood that… we didn’t need for him to be dressed as Uncle Sam wearing whiteface (where does a homeless man get an Uncle Sam outfit and whiteface makeup anyway?).

I don’t know whether to commend the film or criticize it for its inability to be inspirational at the end. Clearly they chose to leave Lopez’s effect on Ayers’ life ambiguous in order to not manipulate it too far from the truth– he is still schizophrenic, still has good days and bad days. However, Wright frames many of these moments as if Lopez has opened Ayers’ eyes in profound ways, and there are times where you can almost feel Wright handing you the box of Kleenex. Some scenes I found moving, such as the scene where the woman writes the letter to Lopez and sends her cello. Some scenes I found daring, such as when Ayers first hears a symphony, and all Wright shows you is psychedelic flashing lights for about 45 seconds. Some scenes I found gratuitous, such as the flashbacks to Ayers hearing the voices in his head at Juilliard. Some scenes were cringeworthy, such as not one but two jokes where Lopez gets pee on himself (don’t ask). While the film is consistently interesting, the lack of cohesiveness and the inability to focus on the narrative prevent the film from fully working. It feels, for lack of a better term, schizophrenic.

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~ by russellhainline on April 26, 2009.

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