Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review: "The Soloist"

With its based-on-facts story, a director coming off a recent Oscar nomination and starring roles for two of Hollywood's most talented leading men, "The Soloist" looked like a bona fide awards contender when it was originally supposed to be released last December.

Director Joe Wright had helmed the much-lauded (perhaps too lauded) "Atonement" and received an Oscar nomination for his work. Robert Downey Jr. fulfilled the comeback that began with "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and "Zodiac" by playing one of the summer's most charismatic superheroes in "Iron Man" and a truly bizarre and uproarious actor in "Tropic Thunder" (for which he received an Oscar nomination). I still find it hard to believe that Jamie Foxx has an Oscar, but the truth is that the man who was once Lawanda proved with "Ray" and "Collateral" that under the right direction he can be a fantastic actor. I firmly believed last fall that this was going to be a serious Oscar contender.

And then...the film received the dreaded move to April. And not just any April slot, but the week before the summer releases arrive, where movies go to die. And I had to wonder whether or not "The Soloist" was set to be a colossal letdown. I had to miss a preview screening of it for obligations with work and, as I prepared to see it last Friday with some friends, the critical drubbing it was taking wasn't really lifting my hopes.

But the truth is that while "The Soloist" would have been blown out of the water last fall, it's not a bad movie. In fact, it's a very good film with some terrific performances and powerful moments that just never lead up to a cohesive whole.

Downey stars as Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times who is not in the best condition when the film begins. He's struggling for ideas in a time when newspapers are being shut down. It's hinted that he screwed up his marriage with his editor Mary (Catherine Keener). And, in the opening scene, he gets into a nasty bike spill.

His misforutnes are nothing compared to the dilemma faced by Nathanial Ayers, who Lopez finds playing beautiful violin music in a park. Clothed in colorful and ragged outfits and dragging an overflowing shopping cart behind him, Ayers is a homeless man who spends his nights on Skid Row and his days playing music in the park and in the tunnels. He's a severe schizophrenic who speaks with a non-stop ramble that he uses to drown out the voices in his head. He also is a trained musician from Julliard. Lopez realizes that a great story is staring him in his face and sets off writing a series of popular columns about Nathaniel and, in time, begins to search for help for his friend and navigate the problems of indifference that face the Los Angeles homeless community.

I've read much--but not all--of Lopez's book and it is, indeed, a film that seems ripe for the big screen. While the screenplay takes some liberties (Lopez, in real-life, was happily married at the time with young kids, not a college aged one) it sticks to the objective tone of the book. The normal intention would be to make this an uplifting drama where Nathaniel gets his life together in time for one big performance. Nathaniel would be an oddball, of course, but he'd be an endearing oddball. We'd laugh, we'd cry, we'd cheer and then we'd leave the theater talking about what an inspiration that story is.

But this is not an inspirational story. Indeed, the dilemma of many homeless people does not end in redemption but in tragedy. And while "The Soloist" is far from being a depressing movie, Wright does take great pains to never sugarcoat Nathaniel's conditions. Just as Lopez wrote in the book, sometimes Nathaniel's condition can be seen as humorous, such as when he asks Lopez--who is standing right in front of him--if he's flying a plane that passesoverhead. Other times, Nathaniel's stubbornness and paranoia make it frustrating to find him help and downright irritating when he refuses the solutions people provide. Foxx wisely refuses to play Nathaniel as a movie character ready for a proper arc--he embodies the paranoia, disconnect and fear that plague the man but never goes over-the-top in his approach. There have been so many failed attempts at portraying mentally-imbalanced characters in the movies that it's refreshing to see Foxx work so hard to reign the character in at the right moments and then, sometimes in the same instant, let loose with unpredictable rage or fear. In the moments where Nathaniel sits with an instrument there's a calm that Foxx embodies that brings to life the one moment of solitude Nathaniel often has in a day.

I was initially worried that Downey didn't have the sincerity for the role. As much as I love watching him work, he has a smarmy shtick that I often worry may hinder him from serious drama. Here, however, it suits him. Having worked for four years at a newspaper I can testify that reporters and columnists often develop a layer of sarcasm or detachedness to shield them from the harsh realities of life. But as Lopez draws closer to Nathaniel, Downey allows some of that to drop away. He does so, however, without never being maudlin or syrupy...there's a calmness and clarity to the role that Downey brings and we see his firmness and detached nature as being essential to dealing with someone as unpredictable and stubborn as Nathaniel. I also loved the scenes between Downey and Keener, who as always brings a wealth of intelligence and wit to a severely underwritten role.

The problem is that Wright never seems to fully trust his actors or the powerful story at its core. I don't deny that Wright has a wonderful eye for cinema. The 10-minute tracking shot in "Atonement" was one of the most beautifully-staged film sequences of last year; it was also completely unnecessary to the film. There's a similarly powerful tracking and overhead shot in "The Soloist" that takes place one night on Skid Row. Wright tracks his camera down a street as junkies light up, homeless men and women scrabble for warmth and the hopeless huddle around lit garbage cans. It's a beautifully-filmed shot. The problem is that the audience is made too aware that it's a beautiful shot and it robs the scene of the grit and reality that we'd need in order to feel properly invested. We're aware that we're supposed to feel moved and overwhelmed by the plight of the homeless because the camera swoops and moves and the music cranks up...but we're also detached because we've just been made aware that we're watching a movie and the scene rings false, feeling more like Oscar bait than a real and immediate shot.

Wright uses similar tactics throughout the movie. One glaringly egregious moment takes place at Disney Concert Hall, where Lopez and Ayers catch a rehearsal. As Beethoven's concerto fills the room, Nathaniel is awestruck and Foxx captures a wonderfully beautiful, lucid moment in this man's life. And Downey's reaction as he watches him is similarly powerful. But then the rest of the lights dim out and we're treated to a light show of what's going on in Nathaniel's mind as he hears the music. Wright's trying to milk uplift and emotion in this sequence, hammering over our heads "THIS IS WHAT NATHANIEL FINDS BEAUTIFUL!!" The shot would have more power and emotion if Wright allowed the camera simply to stay on Foxx and Downey as the music played. Likewise, Wright allows full orchestral arrangements to fill the tunnels and streets when Nathaniel plays his cello alone...robbing us of the beauty of one man's lonely music. One montage drifts away from Nathaniel and Lopez completely as the music shifts from Nathaniel's cello to a full on orchestral arrangement as birds fly over Los Angeles. Again, it's beautifully filmed...but it takes away from the intimate story. Wright keeps wanting to make the film big and cinematic when, at heart, it's about the unlikely friendship between two people and the real-life plight of the homeless. A director who better understood grit and realism would have been better-suited to this material and could have brought more power and immediacy (for some reason I kept thinking of Martin Scorsese and don't know why). Wright comes across as a rich, literate filmmaker with a real eye for cinematography who is trying to "keep it real"...the result feels a bit condescending.

There are some narrative problems as well. The relationship between Downey and Keener is never fully explained or resolved and a series of flashbacks in Nathaniel's life is just unnecessary and over-the-top. Foxx is talented enough to bring Nathaniel's dilemma to life without cinematic trickery...Wright utilizes voice overs and audio tricks to capture the character's schizophrenia and it just comes off as distracting.

Some have said the film is an uplifting drama that fails because it never supplies an uplifting ending. I disagree with that. First off, if "The Soloist" were a standard uplifting drama, I'm sure we'd have those same critics complaining that it's....a standard uplifting drama. The final act of the film doesn't provide an uplift but it also doesn't stoop to melodrama or emotional fireworks (the one time in the film Wright reins it in). It ends the same way many of these stories end--without resolution. Not everyone's story ends in triumph or tragedy...sometimes the end to the story is that there is no ending or cure; it's just about the protagonist accepting that life will go on this way for this individual and all he can do is stand by his friend. Is it anticlimactic? Perhaps. But that's suggesting that life flows in a narrative and can be shaped to fit our expectations. The ending to "The Soloist" is real and may feel anticlimactic, however, because Wright has spent so much time building up emotional expectations that his sudden commitment to realism rings false.

So yes, "The Soloist" has some flaws. I would have loved to see this material in the hands of another director. I would have possibly even loved this material to be done as a documentary instead of a narrative. But it's not the disaster that I think Dreamworks feared thanks mainly to Downey and Foxx, who ironically provide a remarkable duet.


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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.