Review by Jack Foley
BRITISH director Joe Wright (Atonement/Pride & Prejudice) continues to impress with his latest, The Soloist, a film that marks his American debut.
Based on the memoirs of Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez about his unlikely relationship with disturbed homeless music prodigy Nathaniel Ayers, it’s a thought-provoking insight into friendship and mental illness that astutely follows its own distinct path.
It also boasts two commanding central performances from Robert Downey Jr (as Lopez) and Jamie Foxx (as Ayers).
The film picks up as Lopez discovers former classical music prodigy Ayers playing his violin on the streets of LA and decides to turn his story into a column.
As Lopez spends more time with Ayers, however, he resolves to help the homeless man find his way back, thereby forming a unique friendship that transforms both of their lives.
Admittedly, The Soloist does take some artistic licence with fact by turning Lopez into a divorcee when he is, in real-life, still happily married, as well as some artistic flights of fancy to heighten the musical element of the story.
But while the former decision is a flaw that’s reminiscent of so many Hollywood biopics, the latter works to the film’s advantage in making it a little different from the norm.
One scene, in particular, offers an abstract sequence of vivid colours as Lopez takes Ayers to watch an orchestra at the Disney Concert Hall, while another steadicam moving shot following a bird as it soars across the LA skyline recalls the director’s famous tracking shot from Atonement.
It’s to the director’s credit, however, that he’s been able to make his first Hollywood movie mostly on his own terms.
Of the performances, Downey Jr is much more restrained than normal and excels in imbuing Lopez with an everyman quality that makes his own emotional journey both identifiable and enthralling. The actor is clearly on a roll.
But he’s matched by Foxx who doesn’t over-play the schizophrenic nature of Ayers’ character or make him too sympathetic. Rather, Ayers emerges as a difficult, even dangerous personality to be around – one whose sensitivity gives rise to sudden outbursts of volatility and even violence that make his journey far from predictable.
Both Foxx and Downey Jr work well together and there scenes resonate strongly, particularly during their first, tentative steps.
Catherine Keener provides strong support, as Lopez’s editor and ex-wife, while Wright’s decision to employ real-life extras from among the Skid Row community (Ayers’ home) adds to the authenticity, as well as keeping the actors in check.
The Soloist won’t be to everyone’s taste and isn’t without its flaws.
But as a study in human behaviour that confronts some pretty big issues and doesn’t always deliver convenient answers, it’s a moving, affecting piece of work that finds just about everyone on top of their game.
Running time: 112mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: February 1, 2010