The Soloist

Ben Travers

True stories can occasionally be their own worst enemy, as in this unevenly executed exploration of overwrought melodrama.

The Soloist

Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, and Catherine Keener
Distributor: Dreamworks
Rated: PG-13
Year: 2008
US DVD release date: 2009-08-04

The Soloist is a story about many different, somewhat contradictory, ideas. It’s a story of music, journalism, friendship, and America’s homeless population. While some writers and directors can juggle this sort of multiple storyline drama, the team behind The Soloist never discovers the balance or focus necessary to pull off the full act. Though the movie is based on a true story, even the fact that all this really happened can’t save it from sinking into schmaltz.

At first, it seems like a story about the joys of music, focusing on Nathaniel Ayers’ incredible talent and unfortunate circumstance. Middle-aged and homeless, we meet Nathaniel through LA Times’ columnist Steve Lopez and his requisite curiosity. The two form an unlikely bond as Lopez marvels over the former Julliard student’s gifts.

However, during the two sequences used to convey the relevance of Nathaniel’s music, director Joe Wright fails to find a way to visually communicate the capacity of the musician. First, as Nathaniel plays for Steve, he focuses on the flight of two birds soaring high above Los Angeles’ dirty streets to the pure, blue sky above. The metaphor is crystal clear, but the shots are dull and unimpressive.

Next, at a private symphony performance set up for Nathaniel, Wright chooses to show nothing but an array of moving colors while a Beethoven number plays. This attempt is so lackadaisical in effort it sparks memories of the early 2000s version of Windows Media Player and its dancing color strings.

Shortly after Lopez’s first column on Nathaniel is published, the story shifts its focus to the plight of the homeless man. A good portion (probably around 20 minutes) of the film’s second act is spent studying the population of a homeless shelter in Los Angeles where Nathaniel resides.

At first, the place looks awful. Men walk by muttering to themselves. Women shriek and run around aimlessly. Seemingly every inhabitant walks right up to Lopez and gets in his face about nothing in particular. It’s almost as if they’re trying to be scary, instead of just being a little confused and depressed about their situation in life.

The primary sequence in the shelter is actually quite frightening, and not in line at all with any behavior we’ve seen with Nathaniel. Now, I’ve had plenty of experience with the homeless as well as with the mentally handicapped. None of the individuals in this film represent either, or even a realistic combination of the two. They seem to be there just to evoke pity for poor Nathaniel, when in actuality; they end up making look almost healthy in comparison.

Unfortunately, the unnecessary loitering doesn’t end there. Wright continuously chooses to focus on select aspects of the story while ignoring vital parts deemed irrelevant by himself, the writer, or the editors (or all three). For instance, we get lengthy scenes of Nathaniel’s upbringing shown in ultra dramatic flashbacks (but without any transitions). These scenes really help identify the character and how he ended up without a job or home.

But in comparison, we never get any real definition of our film’s narrator, Steve. We know he’s a writer, an ex-husband, and a bit of a smart ass, but nothing relevant to his motivations in the film. At first, he seems a little lost himself, but then he’s suddenly jaunty and content. It’s as though Robert Downey Jr. played the same character as two different people and then the editors combined them during post-production. The balance is all wrong, and no one ever settles on a permanent direction resulting in an anti-climax about nothing in particular.

If you include the DVD extras while considering the film’s focus, you would probably conclude that this film is more about the homeless than anything else. A ten-minute feature titled Addressing Homelessness in Los Angeles and a two-minute animated short film called Beth’s Story both focus on raising homelessness awareness, as does the PSA before the film.

There are deleted scenes and a making-of featurette, but the extra content on the disc seems strictly aimed at making the viewer aware of a small aspect of the film. Don’t misunderstand – this is a significant issue in America. But The Soloist is a private story about one man, an idea nicely conveyed in a five minute short titled Kindness, Courtesy, and Respect: Mr Ayers + Mr Lopez.

During these brief few minutes, we get a great sense of Nathaniel’s passion and skill, as well as the strong friendship between the musician and writer. Unfortunately, the film (and its DVD extras) tries to manipulate this simple idea into something more socially meaningful when it could have been, more effectively, a poignant, powerful look at an unlikely friendship.


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