The Soloist
Yes, I remembered to wash my hands afterwards.

Theatrical Release Date: 04/24/2009
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Nelsan Ellis, Stephen Root, Tom Hollander, Rachael Harris, Lisa Gay Hamilton

Watching as many films as I do and being as cynical as I am, seeing a film like “The Soloist”, so obviously built like an Oscar vehicle but being released in April sets off some alarms. With an original release date of late last year (more traditional for expected contenders so as to stay fresh in voters’ minds), it seems that Dreamworks and Universal (why two major studios?) either lost faith in the project due to lackluster early reviews or felt they already had too many films to guide through the complicated marketing process that is awards season.

After actually seeing the film, I think the studios made the right decision … though that doesn’t mean audiences won’t connect with this true story brought to the big screen via Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx and director Joe Wright. Foxx plays Nathaniel Ayers, a Juliard drop-out living on the streets of Los Angeles and suffering from schizophrenia. Downey brings L.A. Times reporter Steve Lopez to the silver screen, a features writer on the lookout for human interest pieces that he feels will inspire him.

The film sets itself up as if it’s going to divulge a deeply personal and intimate friendship that develops between the two. Via flashbacks and present day placement in a homeless outreach community project, we see Ayers struggle with his mental illness while trying to realize/recapture his musical potential. Lopez is looking for meaning and hope in these ever-increasingly bleak times and latches onto Ayers like a starving pit bull on a ham sandwich. Their relationship is based on mutual need and although it’s clear that Lopez is using Ayers to get the story, as any reporter does with a source, Downey and director Joe Wright attempt to balance this issue through the insight into humanity and the homeless problem that Lopez gains.

This brings me to perhaps the biggest issue in the film: the homeless. No, I don’t blame them for any of the film’s shortcomings (just how evil do you think I am?). However, the film takes a sharp turn away from the Ayers/Lopez dynamic to shine a spotlight on the 90,000 homeless in Los Angeles, their lack of social services and the harsh nature of what it means to literally live on the streets.

Like any normal person, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who find themselves out of house and home. However, the filmmakers should have made the decision to focus the film on just the interpersonal issues or just the homeless issue. Trying to do both only limits the ability to do either very well, creating not only issues for the audience’s attention span but also the pacing of the film, disrupting the flow and giving the project a stop-start motion as the story shifts time and again.

On the plus side, the music is handled quite well, utilizing L.A. Philharmonic cellist Ben Hong not only as a technical consultant and teacher to Foxx but also as the featured player on the film’s soundtrack. They even landed the real life conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, to play himself which was a nice nod to the classical music enthusiasts and only right since they were using the Disney Hall as such a central location piece.

Visually, Wright tried to show the audience Ayers’ perspective when it came to how he saw music. A good idea, the execution fell flat and felt forced more often than not – either via the Pink Floyd laser light show meant to represent synesthesia (where one sense is replaced by another, in this case color for sound) or the digital pigeons clapping their wings and flying around to the harmonious melody. Thankfully, representing the auditory hallucinations of Ayers’ via a cacophony of voices in his head worked quite effectively and tied in well with Foxx’s performance, which is good. He’s not at the high-water mark set in 2004′s “Ray” and there are a few scenes that come off as disingenuous but it definitely could have been worse so I’ll try not to get too overly critical here.

Downey also delivers a good effort, though it didn’t require him to do much more than read the script aloud and mind his blocking (because of his quirky line delivery, the narration Downey delivers works despite its cliché nature). Portraying real people, especially those who are still alive, is challenging and doesn’t allow for actors to veer off the beaten path as much as they might prefer. As such, Steve Lopez comes off as a nice person whose only distinguishing character traits seem to be those of Downey Jr. since they are the same ones he tends to use in many of his roles.

As you have no doubt surmised, “The Soloist” isn’t perfect. The film shines best when Downey and Foxx are at odds with one another, either verbally or physically, and I wish the screenplay could have spent more time on that rather than attempt to create such an obvious message piece. It feels far longer than it’s 109 minute runtime, the focus of the film needs to be placed on either the personal or societal level and it definitely lends weight to the adage that truth is often stranger than fiction considering all of the events that would have to transpire in order for Ayers’ story to resemble anything like how his life is depicted on-screen.

Still, Downey and Foxx put in decent performances, it’s a remarkable story and the music is beautiful (that Beethoven guy knew a thing or two, I guess that’s why Bill & Ted picked him). A 3 out of 5, you’re probably better off catching this at home via your premium channels or on DVD. Don’t expect any awards consideration but also keep in mind not to necessarily trust all of us critics. Films like these are built to tap into the audience’s need to see the triumph of the human spirit and more often than not, that rubs us jaded folk the wrong way (though I welcome any Jena Malone cameo, even if it’s completely random and that it goes uncredited on IMDb).

The best advice I could give (and it applies to any film) is to trust your gut … oh, alright, trust me too. I wouldn’t ever steer you wrong, would I?