DIR: Joe Wright • WRI: Susannah Grant • PRO: Rikki Lea Bestall, Gary Foster, Eric Heffron, Russ Krasnoff • DOP: Seamus McGarvey • ED: Paul Tothill • DES: Jess Gonchor • CAST: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Nelsan Ellis
And so the summer ends, the kids go back to school and the weather (sadly) stays the same. Along with any hope of blue skies go the last of this year’s blockbusters – to be replaced by the equally formulaic Oscar® hopefuls. The first of these is The Soloist, complete with each of the award-winning boxes ticked – a nominated director in Jon Wright (Atonement); a Best Actor winner in Jamie Foxx (Ray); and an Oscar®-nominated screenwriter in Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich). On top of these credentials, The Soloist is a moving portrayal of the loneliness of modern urban life and the courage and nobility of homelessness, as depicted in the character of Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx). Ayers is a gifted musician but also a schizophrenic. As Downey Jr. crudely observed in his nominated performance in last year’s Tropic Thunder, ‘You never go full retard.’ Oh, and it just happens to be a biopic. The first of this year’s Oscar® hopefuls is shameless in its aspirations.
The Soloist is based on the book written by Steve Lopez, the film’s journalist, who is played superbly by Robert Downey Jr. Lopez happens across Ayers after hearing him playing a two-stringed violin on the street. He is initially drawn to Ayers as a potential case study for his newspaper column, but their relationship quickly evolves into a friendship.
Foxx should be commended for his immersion in the role. He spent time with the real-life Ayers and took intensive cello and violin lessons to accurately recreate the gifted Ayers on-screen. Despite this, it is Downey’s portrayal of Lopez which is the real ‘soloist’ of the films title; Lopez is separated from his wife and living alone, out of touch with the city around him. While Ayers is the undoubted study of the film’s plot, it is Lopez who takes centre stage as he is himself altered through his attempts to help Ayers. The solid Downey Jr. and quirky but irksome Foxx are excellently supported by Catherine Keener as Lopez’s ex-wife and boss, Mary Weston, and Nelsan Ellis as David, a local community worker.
The Soloist is well carried by its cast and is visually striking (thanks to director of photography, Seamus McGarvey) but is let down by its misguided humour. While Wright attempts to show the spirit and lighter side of Skid Row – a dangerous district of Los Angeles that is predominantly populated by the homeless – these attempts fall on deaf ears. A few incidents involving Lopez and urine aside, the humour is repeatedly at Ayers’s expense – leaving the audience in the awkward position of being coerced into laughter at his mental illness. The joy within the story comes from Ayers’s pure passion for music; the humour is the unnecessary third string on his violin.
The customary pulling of the heartstrings in the final chapter of the film is undermined by the inexplicable humour that has preceded it, taking away from the film’s lasting impact.
Humour aside, The Soloist is a film worthy of your time on a rainy autumn evening, at least until the rest of this year’s Oscar® contenders begin to flex their literary muscles.
(See biog here)