Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Soloist [movie review]

* Released theatrically in April; now on DVD
The Soloist is based on the 2005 newspaper writings and subsequent book of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr.) about his encounters and friendship with homeless and schizophrenic street musician Nathaniel Ayers (played by Jamie Foxx). A random meeting on the streets of L.A. eventually leads to Lopez sniffing out a possible column idea when he discovers Ayers was an acclaimed cellist in his youth and attended the prestigious Juilliard music school. Ayers' mental illness derailed any hopes of a normal life, much less any sort of future involving a music career.
I could just never get engaged with this felt too long and unfocused, never quite sure what direction it was heading towards. On paper, it would seem the most interesting angle would be about Ayers, but the film zig zags back and forth between his story and Lopez's, with neither one really coming across as overly watchable or interesting. Ayers' tale of tragedy is spelled out with dull flashbacks and an admittedly strong performance from Foxx, who eschews Rain Man or Fisher King theatrics in conveying the character's demons and inability to function normally. While we get ample time with Foxx's character and it's not hard to feel sympathy for him there's a lingering, nagging feeling that we're not getting fully enough into this man's psyche and fractured world.
The focus on Downey Jr.'s character elicits even more ambivalence. The title might seem like a straightforward, literal reference to Ayers but after some time with the film it becomes obvious that there is a duality hidden (or not) within there. Lopez is presented as a loner with few friends - he gets home, plays back his answering machine and gets the time-tested "no messages" reply. A further plot device used to reinforce Lopez's disconnect from the enjoyment of life is attempted via the portrayal of his broken up marriage to a woman (played by Catherine Keener) who is also his editor. The thin storyline simply doesn't justify the screen time it commands and becomes even more puzzling for its inclusion when one discovers it was totally fictionalized. Eventually it becomes clear that Lopez needs Ayers as a means to connect back with the world, even if it includes exploiting him to some degree for career gain in a newspaper world that, we're reminded from time to time, is collapsing around him. Downey Jr.'s performance is perfectly Downey Jr.-like. He slings sarcasm, a sly wit, odd moments of comedy...we've seen this from him in dozens of performances already.
Frankly, I got more out of a 12+ minute piece on this subject from earlier this year on 60 Minutes than I did from the two hours of overly Oscar-ambitious earnestness that The Soloist has to offer. Watch the 60 Minutes story on YouTube below and dedicate that extra hour and three quarters towards another movie that hopefully offers more of a satisfying experience.
Rating: 4/10