The Soloist – Review

Worth seeing: as a confused drama that suggests music cures all ills without emotionally engaging viewers
Director:Joe Wright
Featuring:Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander
Length:117 minutes
Certificate:12A
Country:US
Released:25th September 2009

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr) is one of those down-on-his-luck newspaper columnists, in search of the story that will restore his reputation.

He’s recently broken up from his wife (Keener) who’s his editor at the Los Angeles Times and physical injury is added to his emotional pain when he scrapes half of his face off in a cycling accident.

Stumbling around the backstreets and alleyways of Downtown LA, Steve follows some haunting violin music and finds a black busker in an outfit befitting a 1980s Doctor Who, playing Beethoven on a two-stringed instrument.

This busker, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) turns out to be a former student at the world-famous Juilliard music school.

Fascinated by how a Juilliard student ends up busking on LA’s skid row, Steve befriends Nathaniel, writes about him and tries to use the publicity this brings them both to restore him to the path he’d set out to follow, all those years ago.

But when he discovers what led to Nathaniel’s downfall, Steve realises that while there might be benefits in this exercise for him, it will be harder than he first thought to help Nathaniel.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

This is the real-life story of – well – Steve Lopez – and how he set out to restore the potential of talented cellist Nathaniel Ayers, by lifting him out of the gutter and setting him back on the path to success and riches – while, of course, getting himself a book deal – and now a feature film – into the bargain.

This immediately makes it hard to determine the true motivation of our central character – how altruistic is he being? Is he doing it out of sympathy for Nathaniel or to promote his own career and win back the respect of his ex-wife?

In truth, there’s probably a bit of both going on behind Robert Downey Junior’s complex, but strangely emotionally cold performance. Despite the ambiguity in his character, he’s still the most likeable thing in this film. It’s always difficult to identify with characters with mental illnesses – as was the case with the eponymous character in the recent drama Adam. If you don’t know what it’s like to meet someone like Nathaniel, this might be an eye-opener, but it will be hard to feel his pain and understand the battle ahead for him.

The Soloist is presented as a film about redemption through music – but it’s Steve Lopez who is redeemed, rather than the musician he’s trying to help.

In truth, we know that schizophrenia can’t be cured by a nice bit of Beethoven, which means we know where the film is heading from the outset – the only alternative would be the kind of Hollywood ending that would have had people pinging their old violin strings at the screen. Happily, the film-makers – British director Joe Wright and screen-writer Susannah Grant – stick to the real-life ending of this story and keep it real.

Shooting this real-life story in the real-life locations, with real-life homeless people as extras, the film retains a degree of authenticity, but the ambiguity of the central character and the inherent hopelessness of his charge make it a frustrating journey emotionally.

There a rather irritating cameo from British actor Tom Hollander, while the fabulous Catherine Keener is grossly underused in a role that fails to give her anything interesting to do.

There are some interesting directorial touches – from Nathaniel’s visualisation of the music that lifts his heart and birds in the underpass whose wing-flaps are the closest he’s ever had to the applause of an audience.

But despite its worthy aim of highlighting the problems of mental illness and homelessness and the healing power of music, with the final message being that the wrong person is healed (not that he doesn’t deserve it), the film seems to miss its mark.

It’s worthy and visually interesting with strong performances, but your heart won’t be lifted and it’s not quite the music to your ears – or eyes – that the film-makers will be hoping for.