The Soloist

Review by Lorien Haynes @LorienHaynes

Directed by

Joe Wright

Starring

Catherine Keener Jamie Foxx Robert Downey Jr

Anticipation.

Fascinating true story by Steve Lopez. Stonking leads. Great British Hope of a director.

Enjoyment.

Sporadic and bi-polar; the highs are extraordinary and the lows, real black dog.

In Retrospect.

Shame, shame, shame.

A big budget production sees director Joe Wright losing the reins on a film with some truly dire metaphorical moments.

You could watch Robert Downey Jr clean a toilet with a toothbrush for two hours and be fascinated. His personal history, combined with his on-screen chemistry, means that however much urine he ends up coated in – and here there’s both his own and a coyote’s – he can do little wrong. It’s true again in The Soloist. It’s only the film’s contextualisation that periodically stinks.

Director Joe Wright, so impressive and tight with Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, appears to have fallen foul of the studio trap. Given a big budget and US co-production, he’s overstretched, losing the reins on the film with some truly dire, literal, overbearing, metaphorical moments: pigeons flying, music soaring, an avant-garde flicker film and a papier-mâché globe.

Such flaws make you wish – hard – that you could machete The Soloist from a ‘good’ film into a ‘great’ one, as there is much of merit here. This is a superbly performed examination of two lonely men both existing in a Platonic nether world. One, Steve Lopez (Downey Jr), is an LA Times journalist – alone, dysfunctional, divorced. The other, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), is a hobo; schizophrenic, socially disabled and, as Steve discovers, a genius cellist living outside social parameters.

As Steve attempts to nurture Nathaniel’s talent and shunt him into sheltered housing, the film provides a poignant example of middle-class patronage as an avoidance of self-examination. It’s wonderful to realise that Nathaniel’s life is a hard-learned means of self-medication that enables him to survive mental illness; whereas it is Steve who cannot resolve his failed relationship with Catherine Keener’s Mary (Keener and Downey Jr forge a moving slice of modern marriage on the film’s fringe).

As powerful and as subtle is the knowledge that real-life occupants of Downtown LA’s homeless Lamp Community starred in the film. The point isn’t laboured, but it’s made evident in the end credits and is enough to reduce you to tears.

But on leaving, one cannot feel unambiguous. Wright’s major mistake is the flashback to Nathaniel’s background. Mundane, TV movie simplistic and, ironically, very middle-class patronising, it causes the film’s trajectory to go limp. It’s as if Wright has attempted to insert the entirety of Benjamin Button into proceedings.

This is deeply frustrating as there is such dynamism here – in performance; in Wright’s depiction of LA as something akin to Dante’s Inferno; and in his use of the cello as a human voice. Why he didn’t edit the film back to Downey Jr’s point-of-view is a mystery. Or perhaps a compromise he was forced to make. If that’s the case, he’d do better to fly solo again in future.

Published 24 Sep 2009

Anticipation.

Fascinating true story by Steve Lopez. Stonking leads. Great British Hope of a director.

Enjoyment.

Sporadic and bi-polar; the highs are extraordinary and the lows, real black dog.

In Retrospect.

Shame, shame, shame.

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