- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
oe Wright’s “The Soloist” isn’t quite the feel-good movie that the trailers made it out to be. Then again, it isn’t quite like any of Wright’s other films, either. The British director best known for taking bland novels (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement”) and turning them into movies you’d actually want to watch is the wrong guy for the job. This is a story that demands the kind of straight-laced approach you’d never want to see Wright waste his talents on, and it's a shame that he has. Plagued by a script that never knows what it wants, “The Soloist” may feature a pair of award-worthy performances, but the film comes off looking more like Oscar bait than Oscar hopeful in its complete mediocrity.
Based on the book of the same name by Steve Lopez, “The Soloist” stars Robert Downey Jr. as the Los Angeles Times columnist whose life was changed forever when he launched a series of features about Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a musical prodigy living on the streets of Skid Row. When the two first meet, Nathaniel is playing a two-stringed violin under a statue of his idol, Ludwig van Beethoven. But as Steve soon discovers, Nathaniel not only plays the violin, but the cello as well, and did so for two years under a scholarship at the Juilliard before suddenly dropping out. When both the mayor and the community take an interest in Nathaniel’s story (an elderly woman even donates her old cello to him), Steve begins a quest to help cure the musician of his undiagnosed mental illness and give him a second chance at the life he never got to live. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that Nathaniel might be perfectly happy with the life he has.
If you walk into “The Soloist” expecting an ending where Nathaniel is miraculously healed and invited to play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, well, you’re going to walk out mighty disappointed. Most of the movie is dedicated to the friendship that Steve and Nathaniel form along the way, and even that isn’t always pretty to watch. While it does have some underlying themes about the depressing state of homelessness in America, it’s also adamant about addressing Nathaniel’s illness – a subplot that includes flashbacks that never quite work. And therein lies the problem of “The Soloist.” Is it supposed to be a movie about an undiscovered musical talent, the homeless, or the mentally ill? It’s all three, actually, making the film itself feel a little schizophrenic.
And if “The Soloist” wasn’t already a hard enough movie to like, Wright has the balls to include a three-minute light show (think iTunes visualizer) meant to depict Nathaniel’s reaction to a performance by the LA Philharmonic. It’s one of the riskiest things you’ll ever see in a mainstream film, and yet it’s the only way it could have been done. Even better are its two stars. Foxx is brilliant as the schizophrenic street musician, nailing his many eccentricities (like the fast-talking mutter that sounds like an accountant working out a problem in his head) and creating a character that is far more multi-layered than his Oscar-winning role in “Ray.” Robert Downey Jr., meanwhile, injects the comedy and heart into the story, and though it isn’t as memorable as some of his more recent roles, he’s just as integral to the film's success. Without such strong performances, “The Soloist” would have been in serious danger of straying into made-for-TV territory, but as it stands, it’s a movie tha, at the very least, fans of both actors will appreciate.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
After shuffling the film’s release date away from the limelight of awards season and into the dead zone of April, it wasn’t much of a surprise when “The Soloist” failed to perform at the box office. Nevertheless, Paramount has still come through with a nice collection of bonus features highlighted by an audio commentary with director Joe Wright and a making-of featurette (“An Unlikely Friendship”) that, among other things, uncovers the training Jaime Foxx was put through in order to learn how to play the cello. Other extras include a short interview with the real-life Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers (“Kindness, Courtesy and Respect”), a profile on the LA-based Lamp Community (“One Size Does Not Fit All”), and the Blu-ray exclusive “Juilliard: The Education of Nathaniel Ayers.”