“Academy Award nominee Robert Downey Jr. and Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx star in an extraordinary and inspiring true story of how a chance meeting can change a life. ‘The Soloist’ tells the poignant and ultimately soaring tale of a Los Angeles newspaper reporter who discovers a brilliant and distracted street musician, with unsinkable passion, and the unique friendship and bond that transforms both their lives. The remarkable performances make for an unforgettable experience.”
“The Soloist” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.
In theory, anyway. Keep in mind that Joe Wright’s (“Atonement”) adaptation of Lopez’s book, “The Soloist,” does contain the lethal warning, Based On A True Story.
Still, the test of a narrative film’s quality is in how it handles its material, not how closely it skews to history. These aren’t documentaries after all. The lure of “The Soloist” is obvious, the story of a troubled prodigy–Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx)–brought low by mental illness, and the struggle to return to normalcy. As long as the director keeps things from getting too trite in the irresistible urge to make reality better (and isn’t that what movies really are?) these sorts of things can work very well. And Wright is a very good director.
Being a columnist, Lopez’s initial instinct after meeting Ayers is naturally to use him as the subject of a story. He’s not an artist the way Ayers is, he’s a professional who treats everything, even his own grizzly bicycle accident, as grist for the mill. He doesn’t interact with other human beings, he just reports on them. In its way, “The Soloist” is more about Lopez than it is anyone else, mainly because it’s told entirely from his point of view barring a few flashbacks.
It’s actually that point of view that makes “The Soloist” work, as it avoids a lot of the easy angst of Ayers’ youthful breakdown in favor of Lopez’s realizations about the world he lives in. He works hard to get Ayers off the street and into a local homeless shelter (a struggle made all the more difficult by Ayers’ schizophrenic paranoia), and can’t help but get involved with the people that live and work there.
Downey Jr. and Foxx are both very good in roles that could easily be very bad, or at least very easy. Foxx’s Ayers speaks in a rapid fire, stream of consciousness fashion that could be used as a source of bad humor or easy pathos, but instead remains earnest and believable. Downey Jr. has the less showy, but equally to screw up, role of the disillusioned reporter, lost in his own messy world as he tries to cope with the everyday problems of life like divorce and raccoons destroying his lawn. He could have gone into auto-pilot mode of self-deprecation and charm, but he doesn’t, not much anyway.
The plot itself is about normal for this sort of thing there’s only a handful of different stories Hollywood is willing to spend money on, because they know they work (or will at least be popular). But somehow Wright makes it all work, even if it does skirt the edge of triteness. In less sure hands, elements like a brief musical interlude done all in syncopated flashes of color, trying to communicate what experiencing music is like for Ayers could be unbelievably overdone. Everything in this movie could be unbelievably overdone, and if the final result isn’t masterpiece, the fact that it’s so sedate is victory on its own.
It does tip its hands in a few places, things like finding Ayers at the Beethoven statue, which makes sense but is still a little overdone. Tom Hollander’s (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) over-zealous cello teacher is mainly just annoying. And Catherine Keener is used largely as wall paper, the background of Lopez’s life which is introduced and then mostly ignored in favor of his relationship with Ayers.
But that’s about all. Screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Catch and Release”) has a habit of strident screeding, but it’s toned down here. And Dario Marianelli’s score is excellent, melding with classic pieces throughout the film, and then branching back out to original elements. But mainly this works because it’s Wright’s film, and the difference between someone who knows what they’re doing and someone who doesn’t is always obvious.
It’s not great. The subject matter is a little too easy to overdo for that, short of a masterpiece, anyway. And it’s not one of those. But it is pretty good, thanks to a pair of fine performances from its leads and a director who understands understatement. And sometimes those can be as rare to find as a genuine musical prodigy.
An Unlikely Friendship: Making “The Soloist” – This featurette kicks things off covering the making of the movie. It starts from the producers seeing the original L.A. Times article and follows the production along the way. This gets a lot heavier into the development of the script, the performances, and emotions than a lot of ‘making of’ featurettes.
Kindness, Courtesy, and Respect: Mr. Ayers and Mr. Lopez – This was the first bonus feature I went to after watching the movie. It shows the real men that the movie is based on. Ayers seems a lot more coherent in this than he’s portrayed in the movie. But it’s great to see them in the real world here. You’ll want to check this out.
One Size Does Not Fit All: Addressing Homelessness in Los Angeles – Appropriately enough, this featurette covers the real Skid Row and the Lamp community. The filmmakers and local community activists talk about it in an interesting and eye opening way. I’ve worked with homeless in Houston and Dallas before, but L.A. seems to have problems way beyond what I’ve seen in Texas. This is definitely worth checking out.
Beth’s Story – This is an animated story depicting an orphan going from having a job to falling into homelessness. It’s an ad for one of the charities from the film.
Deleted Scenes – There are 5 deleted scenes. The first shows Lopez at the clinic he’s writing about and being grilled about his medical history. The second shows young Nathaniel being harassed by other boys about playing Beethoven. The third is another flashback to Nathaniel at Julliard and further descending into schizophrenia while at a Christmas party. He tries to have a talk with one of his instructors about God, but then completely loses it and pushes the man. That foreshadows some of the events later in the story. It concludes with him getting electroshock therapy. The fourth scene shows more of the reunion between Nathaniel and his sister. The deleted scenes conclude showing Lopez and Ayers going home after the final concert shown in the movie.
Rounding things out is a commentary by Director Joe Wright.