People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
  DVD Review: The Soloist

The Soloist was a movie that, going in, I thought I knew what to expect: an Oscar-baiting movie about a schizophrenic former musician now living on the street who strikes up a relationship with a cynical journalist (and it’s based on a true story, no less). And I was mostly right. But the thing The Soloist has going for it – one of the only things, really – is its two leads, Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, and they’re both good enough to lift what would be an otherwise generically heartwarming would-be Oscar contender into something that wasn’t the waste of time I was expecting.

Maybe I’m being too harsh, though I actually did enjoy The Soloist more than I expected to. It’s just that I normally hate these kinds of movies, and in terms of the story itself, The Soloist didn’t really do much for me. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad movie by any means – director Joe Wright previously made Atonement, so at the very least he knows how to craft a nice-looking film – but it’s just sort of…stock, and not my thing. But having two talented actors at the center of the movie really makes it watchable and interesting.

The film follows Steve Lopez (Downey), an L.A. Times columnist who stumbles across a schizophrenic homeless man playing the cello while looking for something to write about. He does a little digging and learns the man is Nathaniel Ayers, a one-time Julliard prodigy whose bout of mental illness while he was studying essentially cost him his future as a virtuoso musician. Lopez begins writing about Ayers, and eventually forms a friendship with him. It’s fairly standard stuff for movies like this, though it’s based on the book the real-life Lopez wrote about Ayers, and it’s a genuinely moving story, but a recent 60 Minutes piece I saw about Lopez and Ayers was just as emotionally affecting, and it was only a few minutes long. It’s a great story that just tries too hard to tug on heartstrings, and Wright consistently hits the viewer over the head with themes and ideas that would be better accomplished through more subtle means.

But as I said, it’s the performances that kept me watching The Soloist. There’s a part midway through the film where Lopez, scared by the responsibility for Ayers he realizes he’s beginning to assume, tries to push him away. It would normally be seem like a standard plot twist, creating tension by throwing a proverbial monkey wrench into their budding friendship, but Downey makes it totally believable that he’s truly terrified of letting Ayers down, and is certain that he eventually will. And the scene later where Foxx shows the scary side of what was, until then, a somewhat pleasantly “quirky” take on schizophrenia was also expected, but again, he elevates it into something more, and I found myself genuinely scared for Lopez.

The other issue The Soloist deals with is the responsibility journalists have to their subjects. As a guy from a journalism background I find this sort of thing fascinating, and the film spends time examining the question of whether or not Lopez was exploiting Ayers even as he helped him get his life into some semblance of order. It’s not the focus of the film, but it’s a theme that I hadn’t been expecting the film to tackle, one that doesn’t get enough attention in our media-saturated world.

Ultimately I was more compelled by the performances in The Soloist than I was by the story, and I was more interested in the themes and subplots about journalistic responsibility and the death of the newspaper industry than I was by the actual relationship between Lopez and Ayers. The Soloist is certainly not a terrible movie, and I liked it more than I expected to, but considering I was almost dreading watching it, I’m afraid that’s damning the film with faint praise. There’s a very good chance some of you reading this will enjoy it a lot more than I did, but aside from the excellent acting, The Soloist never lives up to the lofty ambitions it clearly has set for itself.



There’s a handful of deleted scenes, and director Joe Wright provides commentary, and he seems more than a little pretentious. It could have been the British accent, but when he says things like, “That blue toilet water is a reference to the first film I made,” it made me want to punch someone in the face. It really confirmed the highfalutin pretentions that I detected while I was watching it; The Soloist really was designed from the ground up to be an Oscar-winning movie that Teaches Us A Lesson about mental illness and homelessness. Noble causes, all, but the movie just isn’t up to that daunting task.

There’s a decent mini documentary about the making of the film, including interviews with the cast and crew, as well as the real-life Steve Lopez. It’s got a lot of the usual PR-fluff feel to it, but it’s well-constructed and I enjoy any opportunity to listen to Robert Downey Jr. talk about just about anything.

Also included are a few sort of PSA-style features (well one, called ‘Beth’s Story,’ actually is a PSA about mental illness), including a short piece about homelessness in Los Angeles – many real-life street people were used as extras – and the producers’ hearts are definitely in the right place. It’s a serious issue, particularly in that city, and it’s commendable that the DVD producers took the opportunity to try to say something about it.

Finally, there’s a featurette about the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers and their relationship (which continues to this day). It’s the best extra on the DVD, as there’s always something more interesting (to me, at least) about the real people who inspired the dramatized version of any “based on a true story” movie. Getting to watch Lopez and Ayers together (they call each other Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ayers, always) and the love they feel for each other is as affecting as anything in the film. Whatever my issues are with The Soloist as a movie, the story of Lopez and Ayers is a remarkable one, and it deserves to be told.

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