Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Soloist (**)

Directed by Joe Wright


Steve Lopez has been a respected staff writer for the Los Angeles Times newspaper since 2001, and the most memorable thing he ever uncovered during his work there was revealing the stunning life of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. The collection of columns he wrote about Ayers evolved into a book, which has now become a film with Jaime Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. Buzz was soaring about this film during its original release date in late November of 2008, but then it became all moot when the film was pushed to April of 2009.

Why? Many claim that the film's Oscar chances would have benefited from a bleak April opening, as opposed to coming out with all the heavy hitters during November and December. I don't believe that theory. No studio would release a film in April if they logically thought that the film had any chance of winning the Academy statue. The only time where films released this early become late-year awards' favorites are when the films are totally awesome (Fargo, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Silence of the Lambs). Unfortunately, The Soloist is not totally awesome.

The film follows Steve Lopez (Downey Jr.), after suffering a rather violent face injury, when he stumbled off of his bicycle and landed face-first into the asphalt. Lopez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and even in his debilitated state, he continues to write about his troubles in ICU. His life is at a crossroads. His boss, Mary (Catherine Keener), is his ex-wife, he barely talks to his college-bound son, and the newspaper business is floundering more and more. The only functional part of his life is his writing.

While pacing around downtown Los Angeles, Lopez finds Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Foxx) playing a two-stringed violin in front of a statue of Beethoven. Nathaniel speaks rhythmically, but incoherently, and when he drops a hint that he attended Julliard School of Music in his past, Lopez finds that he could be the perfect story. After further research, Lopez finds that not only did Nathaniel attend Julliard, but he was actually an immensely talented wunderkind, whose cello playing was superb by his pre-teen years.

Lopez is fascinated by the concept of a former promising prodigy becoming a disjointed, homeless man. He tries to probe Ayers, to find out his history, and how his misfortune came to be. All he can find is that mental problems forced him to drop out of Julliard, and after running out on his sister, he lives on the streets, playing his music in the downtown tunnel. The film chronicles Lopez's attempts to rehabilitate Nathaniel, and help him realize his fullest potential as a musician, but its the friendship that forms between the two men that Lopez never sees coming.

This is Joe Wright's third film, and his first American, non-period film. Atonement was your typical late-year, prestige film, but his version of Pride of Prejudice was probably the greatest version of that story--other than Jane Austen's prose. I'm not totally sure what he's trying to accomplish with The Soloist, though. As the story of an anxiety-riddled writer struggling to balance morality with journalistic objectivity, The Soloist is quite interesting; but as the story of a man's crumble at the hands of mental illness, the film is merely mediocre.

Too many times, flashbacks and asides about Nathaniel interrupt the narrative flow of Lopez's journey. Not that Nathaniel's story isn't interesting, but the way it is told in this film is not unlike many conventional Hollywood showcases of mental illness. Lopez is the man that moves the story from A to B, but the melodrama of Ayers slowly going insane is too tempting to resist for these filmmakers. Its this confusion of theme and tone, I think, that pushed this film's release for nearly half a year--not its Oscar chances.

Luckily, the work of Foxx, Downey Jr., and Keener are occasionally enough to make up for it. Playing a possible paranoid schizophrenic (the film never confirms what his illness is), Foxx probably had ample oppurtunity to overact and be flamboyant, but he prefers the subdued confusion that makes his pain that much more aching. As for Downey Jr., he has quickly become an actor that I could literally watch in anything, no matter how uninspired. His Steve Lopez isn't so much a recreation of a real person, but the invention of a character so tormented and sad, that his constant sarcasm is that much more dejected.

The inconsistency of The Soloist has to be blamed on Joe Wright, who seems to have had trouble transferring from English costume dramas to American stories of redemption. Sure, the shots are beautiful and inspired, and the visual storytelling is top notch, but the ACTUAL storytelling is lacking. Not to trivialize the troubles of Nathaniel Ayers, but his experiences in this film don't seem much different than your average schizophrenic movie character. The film's source material--Steve Lopez--should have gotten much more screentime.

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