REVIEW: The Soloist [2009]

“You couldn’t stop that earthquake”

Director Joe Wright’s new film The Soloist seemed an odd follow up to his great Pride and Prejudice and Atonement adaptations. To go from a period drama to a WWII romance to … the discovery of a homeless Julliard dropout on the streets of LA isn’t quite the trajectory I had envisioned him on the path towards. However, once seen, you can’t help but acknowledge his stamp all over it. With a deft use of stunning visuals, the inclusion of a couple trademark long takes and tracking shots, as well as a layered aural composition, (this time the voices in Nathaniel Ayers’ mind as opposed to the mesmerizing typewriter-as-instrument in Atonement), Wright proves once more that he is one of the best young directors working today. Steve Lopez, the LA Times journalist whose story this is based, walked into the tale of this cellist on accident, creating a series of editorial pieces that ultimately became a novel. Was it necessarily one worthy of a big screen conversion? At first I might have said no, but with the Wright’s handling and the stellar performances from both Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., life was breathed into the words, creating an unexpected delight amongst the squalor of LA’s hellish Skid Row.

I absolutely loved the opening credits. It all keeps us off-balance enough to enter the story without expectations. A voiceover narration from Downey Jr.’s Lopez is placed over imagery of him biking around the streets of LA, interspersed with quick cuts to a newspaper being printed on the Times’ giant press. It’s a rapid-fire sequence showing us Lopez as he takes a header into the street, ending up in the hospital surrounded by the bustle and craziness his city contains, while also slowing things down, (an interesting descriptive, I know, considering the speed at which the paper flies through the press), showing us the credit names amongst the black and white paper vignettes. It all leads us to Lopez’s desk, cluttered and small, as he returns, bloodied and bruised, to an office that contains his ex-wife as boss and the inevitable layoffs the company is facing. Uninterested in a fluff piece about giving blood, (his fear of the needle and a freakishly goth Jena Malone causing the trepidation), he decides to take to the streets and see what stories may be out there. A self-proclaimed occupational writer, Lopez has discovered that his love of the written word and why he became a journalist is all but gone. The awe of an amazing yarn, woven with detail, touching those who read it deeply, is replaced by a paycheck and deadlines—that is until he hears the sound of a violin, drowning out the boisterous subway he sits near.

The other end of that sound is Nathaniel Ayers and his two stringed violin; playing his music for his idol Beethoven, a statue that simply flabbergasts him for being placed there in a city park. A conversation strikes up between these two men and the discovery that Ayers had been to Julliard perks Lopez’s ears into thinking he may just have a story. The legwork begins as research and interviews with the musician and his family leads to a series of articles that touches the city in a very real way. An arthritic woman donates her cello to Ayers when she learns the violin he plays now is not his first love and even the mayor takes note by allocating 50 million dollars into helping the homeless of Skid Row. There is no way that Lopez could have imagined the impact this story would have on the community, nor its transformative powers to himself. By looking into the face of Ayers as he plays, seeing the splendor and effect an intangible thing like music can have on such a troubled soul, Lopez’s fervor for life and his own art is reinvigorated. The shell of a man he had become—selfish, money-hungry, and out for fame—soon dissolves as he finds himself propping up this new friend, sticking by his side no matter what problems arise, problems that would alienate any lesser man.

There are a lot of supporting roles in this piece, many of which are played by recognizable faces. However, most are so small and inconsequential, you wonder why they didn’t go cheap and hire lesser-known actors. Rachael Harris and Stephen Root are barely onscreen, half of Root’s minutes are spent in the background as he drunkenly sings karaoke at a bar; Nelsan Ellis, my favorite character from “True Blood” Lafayette, is so unlike that part here that it took me half the film to realize it was him, the head of Lamp’s community for the downtrodden of LA; Catherine Keener is wasted in a role that serves no other purpose then as a mirror to Downey’s Lopez, showing him what he had lost as the years went by; and even Tom Hollander, as Ayers’ cello coach later in the film, is fun if only for his weird Jesus/Lord comments to a man who doesn’t care, because Lopez becomes his living God. The one supporting role that added some true depth to the film comes from Lisa Gay Hamilton as Ayers’ sister Jennifer. She partakes in some very heart-wrenching scenes opposite Foxx, both in a startling flashback that reveals some answers to his fractured mind as well as a redemptive moment towards the film’s conclusion.

Besides Wright’s stunning visceral assault—the compositions are always interesting, holding faces in the corners and blurring unnecessary information; the close-ups of the bow on the strings of the instruments causing graphic abstractions; a Fantasia-like sequence of color bursts swelling to the music; and even the clapping of pigeons’ wings as they fly through the numerous aerial shots of Los Angeles—the real story becomes Jamie Foxx. Downey is great, but really plays a straightforward character looking for redemption. Foxx, on-the-other-hand, has to work as a troubled soul who at times doesn’t know where or what he is. It’s a role that could have potentially become comical and degrading, (see Sean Penn in the horrid I Am Sam), but Foxx instills heart and compassion. His ramblings are unceasing, his ability to play is realistic, and his childlike glee when it comes to the music—those moments of his face in close with only his eyes and nose visible—showing his inner being finding that peace he remembered from his youth. It is a stunning portrait of a man amongst the demoralized and beaten street dwellers, (many of which are so realistic I thought they were non-actors, especially a moment of Downey Jr. cracking up from a woman’s tale about chickens on the street), in a story that truly surprised me with its message and singular voice. It may not be the most captivating of Wright’s work, but it does still deserve a spot next to them on the shelf.

The Soloist 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
[1] Jamie Foxx stars as Nathaniel Ayers in DreamWorks’ The Soloist (2009) Copyright © DreamWorks Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Robert Downey Jr. stars as Steve Lopez in DreamWorks’ The Soloist (2009) Copyright © DreamWorks Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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