The Soloist (2009) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for drug use and language
Running time: 117 min.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Nelsan Ellis, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Tom Hollander, Stephen Root
Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Susannah Grant (based on the book, "The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music," by Steve Lopez)
Review published May 16, 2009
A beautifully directed, quaint drama about the difficulties and tragedy of mental illness, The Soloist is both absorbing and routine in its approach, as the characters are fascinating even if the story is familiar. However, there is a unique difference in this story in that it is more of a concentration on the value of friendship than it is on an overcoming of adversity. Directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice), who scored his last time out with a Best Director nomination for Atonement, the film is beautifully put together from a visual standpoint, and for much of the first half, it might have you thinking it would be one of the best films of the year. It doesn't quite hold up until the end, partially because the story's focus begins to blur as the themes become fractured, until the momentum goes flat from not being able to wrap up the film in a manner that delivers true resonance home.
Susannah Grant (Catch and Release, In Her Shoes) adapts the Steve Lopez (Downey Jr., Iron Man) book, a true account of an esteemed Los Angeles Times reporter who finds a hot scoop during an excursion into Skid Row in the form of a homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx, The Kingdom). Ayers reveals himself to be a former music prodigy who once attended Juilliard. He never did graduate, as it appears that he would suffer from a debilitating form of schizophrenia, which has impeded his ability to cope with people around him, including his immediate family, who could scarcely find a way to care for Nathaniel's difficult needs. Lopez writes one of his finest pieces ever, and Ayers' story does bring about interest in helping the downtrodden man out. A gift of a cello, Ayers' instrument of choice as a student of music, comes his way, but to play it, Ayers must traverse into a facility that helps those with mental difficulties, which he is nearly adamantly opposed to doing. It's a difficult adjustment, but Nathaniel eventually manages. However, Lopez finds himself straining to keep a certain distance from his newfound friend, whose needs vastly exceed Steve's ability to take care of, especially when he can barely take care of his own problems.
Normally, a film like The Soloist would be released late in the year when many studios push forward would-be Oscar contenders. Instead, it would be shelved until April of the following year, perhaps not considered quite strong enough to vie for the vaunted trophies. I think that the performances by Foxx and Downey Jr. would merit consideration, but it is true that the film as a whole probably would have not made the impact necessary to garner many nods in many other departments. It's a bit of a shame, as Wright does a very masterful job with the material, and if anything, I would say that his direction elevates a script that needed some honing into a collection of very compelling moments. Even so, this film ultimately belongs to the actors, who really bring out some very nuanced characters that are a little off-center without starting into the realm of artifice. Wright's quirky direction mirrors the offbeat nature of the story, and for long stretches, The Soloist blends art with a conventional story in a fascinating way.
I'm actually of two minds about the second half of the film. I didn't think it to be a bad half, and I respect the fact that Wright and Grant did not opt to manufacture a traditional Hollywood ending, even if the details of the books are altered for other thematic purposes. It also reveals some interesting moments, especially on the nature of the road to mental wellness, and of the difficulties in being friends with someone who can't care for himself properly, and rejects so much assistance offered. And yet, there is a palpable deflation in the energy that crackled for the preceding hour, not helped much by the difficulty in trying to decipher just what the filmmakers deemed to be the important points of Lopez's story that merited a major motion picture release.
In a nutshell, an extraordinary beginning leads to a rather ordinary ending, partly because Nathaniel's story diminishes as Steve's begins to take the forefront, and his story isn't painted to be particularly of interest except as it contrasts to the other. Will Steve be able to patch things up with the ex-wife (Keener, Hamlet 2) who looks like she wants to give it a shot, if only Steve could get his act together? Will something finally put the spark back into his life without becoming an obsession? Will he be able to get the pesky, worm-hungry raccoons out of his yard? There's much screen time given to these things, but little of it bolsters the more important elements, such as Nathaniel's condition and the tenuous friendship that threatens to implode from an overwhelming frustration by both parties.
Perhaps the one resounding message that The Soloist evokes is that we, like Steve, should have more compassion for the homeless in the community, not just as a society, but as individuals, as many of them found themselves in that situation through no fault of their own. Unable to work due to their fragile grasp of sanity, too difficult or dangerous to stay with family, they live out on the streets in conditions that are far from helpful in bringing them back to a state of wellness. Places established to help those with mental difficulties are few and far between, overcrowded, underfunded, and often can't treat the afflictions to any degree of discernable success. One can't work miracles, as many of them will never be 100% well again, but through compassion and acts of friendship, they can find it easier to cope. The film as a whole may not live up to the promise of its enormous talent, but for the delivery this lesson alone, it is a worthwhile venture.
©2009 Vince Leo