Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

The Soloist

The Soloist

Review by Patrick Hodges

To play a character with some kind of handicap, defect or impairment without slipping into ridiculous parody takes a special kind of talent.  Done well, it’s the kind of role that can win Oscars.  Jamie Foxx has already done that, playing the blind Hall of Fame musician Ray Charles.  In The Soloist, he plays Nathaniel Ayers Jr., a musical prodigy who, from a young age, displayed a genius-level of talent on the cello, so much so that he was enrolled in Julliard, before finally succumbing to schizophrenia and ending up homeless on the streets of Los Angeles.

Playing his (two-stringed) violin in a public park, he meets L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), who decides to write a series of columns about him.  But to do that involves getting to know him, trying to help him, and embarking on the most perilous journey of trying to become his friend.

The Soloist was not an easy movie to watch.  (Lucky for me, I had the luxury of pausing my DVD several times so I could take a break.)  Director Joe Wright used several different tricks to try to bring us into Nathaniel’s headspace, including aerial shots and psychedelic light-shows that served more to confuse me more than enlighten me. 

The pacing was also very scattershot; for the first hour and a half, the plot crawled along at a snail’s pace, before rushing through the last thirty minutes in an attempt to get Nathaniel back into the music game.  It doesn’t fit, and it hurt my overall opinion of the movie.

But it is the acting of Downey and Foxx that save this film, Foxx in particular.  Playing someone with this malady can often be tiring – his affectations can go from amusing to annoying to frightfully scary in the blink of an eye – but Foxx’s facial expressions are utterly convincing, ranging from the rapture of playing his instruments to the terror of trying to ignore the many voices inside his head.  Downey, displaying his typical arrogance at first, begins to come out of his shell near the middle of the film, and becomes almost humble by the end.  Watching these two together was the highlight of The Soloist.

At times, though, I wasn’t sure if I was watching a buddy picture, a biopic, an expose on the homeless situation in Los Angeles, or a stirring musical drama.  And that is what ultimately hurt.  In an attempt to tell the true story of a disturbed musical genius and the journalist who chronicles his story, director Joe Wright ventures a little too far outside the box.

3 / 5 stars

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