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MOVIE REVIEW
The Soloist (2009)

S-05990R
Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures

“The Soloist” is an impressive technical achievement, a unique visual portrait of Los Angeles and a creative evocation of the orgiastic power of Beethoven and Bach. Still, although the film features many elements conducive to a compelling human drama, it never quite gets there. With a premise that relies heavily on dynamic characters whose dynamism is never tangibly felt, irreparable discordance develops between the high caliber craft and a narrative that’s frankly less affecting than it should be.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist down on his luck and suffering from a bad case of writer’s block. His fog starts to lift when one day, while sitting alone in a rundown part of the city, he hears the unexpectedly beautiful strains of a violin. He discovers the source of the music to be Nathaniel Ayres (Jamie Foxx), a schizophrenic homeless man carting around a shopping cart, a garishly decorated hat and – it soon turns out – the painful memories of an aborted Juilliard education.

The picture, directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Susannah Grant, is based on the true story of the two men and their interactions as depicted in Mr. Lopez's book "The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music." The narrative charts his herculean effort to get Mr. Ayres off the street and back to playing music in an organized setting. But rather than develop a structured story arc that advances from point A to point B, the film indulges its exploration of the ways the central relationship intersects with major themes of modern urban American life.

It’s about the alienation inherent to our perpetually plugged-in society, in which individuals of separate social strata circle one another on city streets but don’t bother interacting. If the film works from a dramatic standpoint at all, it’s because of the rather profound specter of two men forging a meaningful bond across severe cultural divides in one of the loneliest of lonely cities.

Mr. Wright, who is British, brought a mostly foreign crew with him to the City of Angels, and the film benefits greatly from that outsider’s perspective. To a large degree, the filmmaker resurrects the aesthetic of the city symphony, a subgenre of film prevalent in the 1920s and '30s that used meticulously edited images of skyscrapers, throngs of crowds and city squares to tell the stories of life in modern metropolises.

The movie engages with the expansive freeways and the clusters of tall buildings characteristic of the sprawling city. The camera joins a flock of birds soaring above them and peers up to the sky from the concrete underpass Nathaniel inhabits. Later, it slowly careens past downtrodden figures in suspended animation amid the filth and blight of skid row.

Additionally, Mr. Wright makes some ambitious choices in creating the ideal visual accompaniment to the musical performances. At one point he replaces the images with pulsating colors. At another he engulfs his actors in an overwhelming blackness that communicates the transformative, spiritual power of great music.

Still, “The Soloist” is really about the ways Steve and Nathaniel are fundamentally changed by their relationship, and the filmmakers never offer visceral proof that’s happened. These characters are much more interesting on paper than they prove to be when fleshed out over the course of the picture. Mr. Wright and Ms. Grant get too preoccupied by their larger ambitions and the aforementioned cinematographic flourishes to explore the friendship with the subtlety it demands.

The screenplay fails to give the characters the complex texture and depth required by the story. Nathaniel remains an enigma throughout, kept too distant and closed off, even during the moments most meant to humanize him. Mr. Foxx gives a performance so somber and serious, so resolutely ingrained in the character’s psychological shell, that the character comes across as less of a fleshed out person than a tool for Steve’s betterment. Save for repeated flashbacks to the onset of his mental illness and departure from Juilliard, Nathaniel remains uncomfortably detached from his surroundings, lost in a netherworld.

Mr. Downey, one of our great sardonic screen presences, is kept totally in check. Steve is one of the most straightforward, painstakingly normal characters he’s played. A nice guy experiencing personal and professional crises, he plunges into the task of helping Nathaniel with such obsessive focus that he too seems rather inhuman. Ms. Grant’s screenplay tries to firmly entwine his steadfast devotion to his friend with his own reawakening to the joys of living, but Mr. Downey underplays the part so much the he never offers insight into Steve’s emotional being.

The character is so levelheaded that the audience needs to feel some sort of primal, method energy burgeoning under the surface, a deeply ingrained emotional reason he takes such an interest in Nathaniel. The actor fully commits to keeping his more out-there impulses in check, an admirable gesture but one that ensures Steve remains as enigmatic a figure as his friend. Despite its engagement with unique, sensuous visual conceits, “The Soloist” is hampered by the collective failure to shape characters worthy of the depth and breadth of its style.

THE SOLOIST

Opens on April 24 in the United States and on Sept. 11 in Britain.

Directed by Joe Wright; written by Susannah Grant, based on the book by Steve Lopez; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Paul Tothill; music by Dario Marianelli; production designer, Sarah Greenwood; produced by Gary Foster and Russ Krasnoff; released by DreamWorks Pictures, Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Jamie Foxx (Nathaniel Anthony Ayers), Robert Downey Jr. (Steve Lopez), Catherine Keener (Mary Weston) and Tom Hollander (Graham Claydon).

Comments

it makes sense that they would Robert Downey Jr. as an intellectual/journalist type, he was a similar character in Zodiac

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