A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE SOLOIST jj
½ 

2009, PG-13, 105 mins.

Nathaniel Ayers: Jamie Foxx / Steve Lopez: Robert Downey Jr. / Mary: Catherine Keener / Graham: Tom Hollander / Jennifer: Lisa Gay Hamilton

Directed by Joe Wright / Written by Susannah Grant, based on the book by Steve Lopez.

THE SOLOIST is definitely one of those feel-good dramas that has deeply felt aspirations of Oscar gold...and almost aggressively so.

Just consider its vital stats:  

We have multiple Oscar nominated and winning actors (Robert Downey Jr. and Catherine Keener with two noms each and Jamie Foxx with one nom and a win); an Oscar nominated screenwriter (Susannah Grant for ERIN BROCKOVICH); an Oscar nominated cinematographer (Seamus McGarvey) and a marvelous young filmmaker that should have been nominated for an Oscar for direction (I’m talking about Joe Wright, who crafted some of the most impressive tracking shots ever in ATONEMENT, for which he collaborated with McGarvey).  

Added to that A-list cast and crew is other notable Academy bait, such as the story that’s “based on real events”, a character that is overcome with mental illness, and a touchingly sentimental theme about the healing power of friendship and classical music.  

Yet, why does THE SOLOIST strike so many false and disagreeable notes?  

Originally, this film was strategically slated for a November of 2008 release, which is prime real estate for any serious consideration for gold statuettes the following February.  However, you just know that something is seriously off when a studio decides to withhold a film’s release until the cinematic graveyard period that is April (this moves shows a of confidence alone).  However, it would be shallow of me to use that as a crutch to overtly criticize THE SOLOIST…so I won’t…but I will go out of my way to state that the type of film that it’s trying to be is one of my more loathed genres, one that smells of lame, ham-infested Hollywood melodrama and TV-movie-of the week schmaltz.  Now, there are certainly strong merits to the film (the cast and director are first rate, to be sure), but instead of being deeply moved by THE SOLOIST, I came out of it feeling more empty and confused.  I should have been thoroughly involved with its story, personas and their relationships, but I simply found the film to be flat, dramatically flaccid, and more than just a bit manipulative.  It wants to stamp “Multiple Oscar noms” all over itself, but paradoxically is not awards caliber at all.  

The film is based on a true story…as if that moniker means anything these days.   The reality in the film concerns the Nathaniel Ayers, a deeply gifted musical prodigy that developed severe schizophrenia while in his second year attending Julliard School.  As a result, he became homeless and hopelessly delusion, having great difficulty deciphering fantasy from reality.  Yet, his cognitive disease did not destroy his musical gifts, as he still played the cello and violin in the streets of L.A.  Eventually, a newspaper columnist, Steve Lopez, discovered the man and began to devote a well regarded series of articles to him, which eventually culminated in his best selling book, THE SOLOIST: A LOST DREAM, AND UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP, AND THE REDEMPTIVE POWER OF MUSIC.  

Okay, so the events in the film “actually happened”, but the problem with the film’s interpretation of these factual events rings falsely.  I guess that THE SOLOIST never really develops this “friendship” in a plausible manner, nor does it ever attempt to take a harder look at some of the more distressing questions one is left with when looking at the story.  For instance, what was Lopez’s real motivation with his journalistic endeavors here?  Was he really trying to aid Ayers and heal him for the better?  Or, was he simply using and exploiting this poor man for his own career gains?  Of course, since the film is ripe with feel good phoniness, Lopez comes across as a fairly caring individual, despite the fact that he is initially shown as a selfish and arrogant man.  Not only that, but (no need for a spoiler warning here) by the end of the film we learn that Ayers has still not overcome his schizophrenia and essentially is no better off than he was at the beginning of the film, other than being off of the streets.  

Oh…but wait…the nourishing and therapeutic properties of an unlikely friendship and, yes, music makes both of these men all the better.   

Riiiiiggghhtt.  

The film opens by introducing Lopez (Robert Downey Jr., who can play wiseass and shrewd characters to charismatic perfection) as he suffers a horrible bicycle accident.  During his recovery time he tries to find material for his next column for the L.A. TIMES while having a deadline looming up on him, which is frequently reinforced by his editor and former wife (played well by the always reliable Catherine Keener; for the record, the real Lopez never divorced, nor is he married to his editor, making the film’s choices somewhat odd).  One day while in Pershing Park he has a fateful meeting with Ayers (Jamie Foxx, more on him in a bit), who is strange to be sure.  He is, by all accounts, a bum, but he has an incredible knack for playing the best of Beethoven on a one-string violin, no less.  While Lopez approaches this odd person – with a larger than life statue of Ludwig Van looming over them like a silent overseer – he makes some feeble attempts to discover who he is, but Ayers speaks with such a hyperactive level of double talk and nonsense that it’s amazing that anyone – including Lopez – would stay to chat with him for more than a minute.  

Well…he does.  

After his chance encounter with this musical genius Lopez makes some interesting discoveries, like the fact that Ayers actually attended Julliard and only stayed on for two years (he was also one of the few black students there at the time).  The more Lopez digs the more he thinks that Ayers’ story is worth telling (again, as to whether he does this out of deep sympathy for Ayers or to exploit him is never effectively dealt with – all we know is that Ayers' music moves him).  One reader of Lopez’s initial column becomes so enraptured by the story that she sends in a working cello to Lopez at the Times for him to give to Ayers.  When Lopez gives it to him this kicks off an offbeat and obligatory improbable friendship of two polar opposites that are able to mend one another, so to speak, via that touching bond.  

Despite its frequent somber and sincere tone, I found it hard to take this movie seriously…and far too often.  Lopez soon becomes obsessed with providing a better life for Ayers.  He goes to indiscernible lengths to ensure that Ayers' situation is improved, doing everything from stocking him on the streets, spending an unhealthy amount of time on Skid Row, and even managing to find him shelter and a music teacher (Tom Hollander) so that he may one day have a recital of his own.  Yet…why does he do this?  What are his motivations?  The film never made me feel like Lopez would be the sort to have such a radical change of heart to help a complete stranger in need.  Moreover, he and many others in the story fail to grasp the simple notion that this man – for Pete’s sake! – has a serious mental illness that requires immediate psychiatric assistance.  At some times, Ayers is decent and gentle, but too many other times he is a chaotically mean tempered loose canon that seems willing to inflict physical harm on himself and others.  

Oh…but wait…one social worker at Skid Row tells Lopez that Ayers does not need a doctor telling him that he’s sick…all he needs is "a friend" in Lopez.  

Riiiiiggghhtt.  

If the film’s blatant and shameful attempts at being an emotionally charged tearjerker are not disagreeable enough, then it also becomes pretentious and somewhat tedious.   Sometimes the film meanders aimlessly in search of a smooth narration (it sloppily cuts back and forth between the present and Ayer’s childhood in Cleveland and his later years in Julliard).  Moreover, THE SOLOIST sometimes feels too preachy with its sentiment, almost as if it is methodically telling us how to react with any given scene.  Individual moments in films like this should speak for themselves, but more often than not the film feels too simpleminded and blasé.  It wants to tug on our heartstrings, but since you don’t really end up feeling much for most of the characters, this cause is for naught.   

That’s sad, because the individual performances are quite strong.  Downey in particular gives a far more empowered performance as his disillusioned and troubled newsman, more that his otherwise vague character hints at.  The great Catherine Keener has a manner of flying in under the radar to give her scenes an emotional earnestness - you rarely see her overplay a moment.  One performance problem may lie with Foxx, who is essentially playing the “Rain Man” figure in the film.  What’s perplexing is that he does manage to commendably display his character’s dislocation from reality, but there are many scenes where Foxx comes across as almost deliberately mannered and irksomely theatrical.  It certainly is easy to see how he would have found the notion of playing this role appealing (as stated, it is the sure-fire stuff of easy Academy accolades), but his performance never really tips us off to what makes this man really tick.  Instead, we get many scenes that are meant to be used for a potential Oscar nomination highlight reel.  You just gain an overwhelming sensation that Foxx is simply overplaying a part and trying too hard when he should be slyly immersing himself in a tricky character.  

THE SOLOIST does deserve some compliments:  Joe Wright’s direction (as he displayed in films like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and ATONEMENT) is solid and I liked how he gave some personality to the disparaging environments in the film (from Lopez’s hectic and rushed newsroom environment to the dilapidated and aggressively bleak street life that Ayer’s lives in).  He also shows what an unqualified master of the tracking shot (perhaps nothing will match his exquisite steady cam shot that highlighted the center of ATONEMENT, but some moves in THE SOLOIST, like a spectacular dolly shot from the streets the sweeps up from the sidewalks and all the way into the air past the skyscrapers, is quietly breathtaking).  Perhaps Wright’s most noteworthy accomplishment here is how meticulously he recreates Skid Row life (filming at the actual location and with real street people), and the way he maneuvers his camera through this utter mass of dislocated and distressed humanity that are wasting away in this area gives THE SOLOIST a much needed dosage of realism and heartfelt poignancy.   

Yet, stunning and virtuoso production design and strong and assured direction from Wright is not enough to make THE SOLOIST rise above the level of a cliché-ridden and manufactured melodrama.  The film is certainly well intentioned (it rightfully portrays transient life in L.A. as cruel and frequently hopeless), but it perplexingly sugarcoats Ayer's mental instability and illness, not to mention his relationship with Lopez.  It just did not make me fully believe that a textbook workaholic and career motivated individual like Lopez was resuscitated back to “life” by the redemptive power of friendship and the tones of Beethoven, the latter at least provided by a music maestro that happens to be homeless, deeply impaired, and disturbed enough to kill Lopez at any given moment (it’s a miracle that the reporter stuck with this guy for as long as he did).  There is no doubting that this film has an artistic vision and something profound to say, but THE SOLOIST should have been sincere and lyrical with its subject matter.  Regrettably, it just emerges as a noble minded, but problematic, bit of award season enticement.  It's a film that's out of tune with itself.

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