Movie Review: The Soloist (2009)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx in The Soloist

Photo: DreamWorks Pictures

Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) makes beautiful movies, and he does so without shying away from the less than flattering aspects of his stories. The Soloist is certainly a beautiful film that occasionally delves into dark corners, but at the same time it seems lost in its storytelling. This is a film that could very easily have fallen deep into melodrama, and had it done so it may have been left in its late 2008 award season release date. However, the film is almost too honest for its own good, never fully committing itself to any one side of its story only to result in a mish-mash of ideas that never fully reveal much of anything.

The Soloist is based on the true story of Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a schizophrenic musical prodigy who had to drop out of Julliard after two years and is now homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. It is here where he meets LA Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), who turns Nathaniel’s life into a series of editorials as the two strike up an unlikely friendship, but not without reservations.

For the better part of the film Lopez is doing nothing more than exploiting Nathaniel and the only reason he continues to write about him is because he continues to feel some level of guilt for the situation he’s in or because a reader sends gifts he is expected to deliver. Of course, that doesn’t make for much of an intriguing story and certainly not an uplifting one, which is where Nathaniel’s schizophrenia comes into play.

My biggest fear walking into The Soloist was an expectation that Jamie Foxx would try too hard to act out Ayers’ mental illness, which would have pretty much turned the character into a clown considering the radical costumes he is seen wearing. Instead, Foxx turned in a fine performance, playing a semi-lucid character suffering from occasional outbursts and serious anxiety issues. The film, however, never fully commits to the character and treats him more as a B-movie cliché with needless flashbacks interrupting the narrative flow. The present day scenes are extremely strong thanks to fine work turned in by each actor involved, but you are never quite sure if this is a film about schizophrenia, homeless people, journalism and its effect on society, human nature, missed opportunities or what exactly. All of these themes are here, but it is presented in a hodgepodge that is still watchable and at moments very entertaining, but overall the lack of focus causes you to lose interest throughout the film’s ups and downs.

The strongest points of the film are undoubtedly its lead actors. As I already said, Foxx is great in a role he could have taken so far over the top it would have been a caricature, and Downey Jr. as Lopez is an excellent counter to Nathaniel’s instability. Actually, while watching this movie I began to realize Downey is most likely the only actor working right now I watch and can’t wait to see what he is going to do next. How is he going to deliver his next line? How will he walk down the street? How will he react to what that person just said? He is an amazing talent and simply casting him in a film is enough to get me into the theater.

While The Soloist is not a film I would recommend anyone rush out and see. It is, however, a film I have a hard time believing anyone could walk out of entirely disappointed and expect some will actually like it quite a bit. Buzz on the film and a death sentence of a release date lowered my expectations greatly, but I will say I was happy to walk out of the theater having been able to take something away from the film, realizing the night wasn’t a total loss.

GRADE: C+

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