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'The Soloist' Movie Review

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

By

Robert Downey Jr Jamie Foxx The Soloist

Robert Downey Jr and Jamie Foxx in 'The Soloist.'

2009 DW Studios L.L.C. and Universal Studios.
Here's the deal: Audiences aren't buying into dramas right now. Comedies, comic book-inspired films, action movies, teen films...those are getting the attention of moviegoers. Anything that makes us forget about what's happening in our world and gets us caught up in a total fantasy experience for a couple of hours is doing well at the box office. So, in this climate, it's not the wisest move to unspool something as serious and thought-provoking as The Soloist. Come on, now is not the time of year we normally see films of this ilk, even when the atmosphere isn't as poisonous to dramatic films as it is currently.

The Soloist is the type of prestige film that would normally come out in October, November or December - the sort of picture that usually garners awards attention and attracts ticket buyers looking to check out supposedly the best of what Hollywood has to offer for the year. Orchestrating a beginning of the summer movie season release for The Soloist doesn't make much sense. It was pushed back from a late 2008 release anyway, so what harm would have come from delaying it a few more months to a more appropriate time of year? I don't get it. Summer's when we want to have fun at the theaters, not get caught up in a sad tale of homelessness, mental illness, and the affect of journalism on society at large. And it's a shame The Soloist may get ignored by moviegoers and critics groups alike as it features a couple of the best performances we're likely to see in all of 2009.

The Story

Based on a true story, The Soloist explores the unusual relationship between Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr) and Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless, schizophrenic street musician who dresses in wild, psychedelic toss-offs and keeps up a steady stream of conversation decipherable only to his own ears much of the time.

Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr in 'The Soloist.'
© 2009 DW Studios L.L.C. and Universal Studios.
Lopez is looking for a story to fill up his column, and a random encounter with Ayers sets off his writer instincts and sets his brain to pinging with ideas. Ayers tells Lopez during their first meeting that he attended Juilliard, and the way he plays his violin (which has but two strings left on it) makes that pronouncement seem a possibility. Lopez checks up on him and finds out that in fact Ayers did attend the prestigious school for a couple of years before dropping out.

As Lopez gets to know Ayers - as much as anyone can know a stranger with severe mental problems who's not being treated for his disease - he discovers an incredible musician still exists inside the man who 99.9% of the population would go out of their way to avoid eye contact with. What started as the idea for one column turns into a life-changing relationship from which both men benefit, though in vastly different ways.

The Cast

Is proclaiming Robert Downey Jr one of the best actors of his generation pushing it? Check out The Soloist and tell me Downey Jr isn't at the top of his game as a newspaper reporter who uses Ayers to get a story before finding himself unintentionally becoming the most stable friend the tortured Ayers had during his years on the streets. It's mostly through Downey Jr's eyes that we follow the story, listening in while he dictates what he's learned dealing with Ayers into his tape recorder before writing up his articles for the LA Times. Downey Jr thoroughly and absolutely becomes this veteran journalist who gets too close to his subject and finds himself caught up in Ayers' life to point where an actual friendship has formed.

Jamie Foxx delivers yet another poignant performance as he tackles what just had to be the most difficult role of his career. Whether speaking at a manic pace as Ayers' mind trips out on him or altering everything about his being when Ayers shows moments of near lucidity, Foxx never, ever turns his portrayal of Ayers into a caricature of a mentally unbalanced man.

Robert Downey Jr Jamie Foxx The Soloist
Robert Downey Jr and Jamie Foxx in 'The Soloist.'
© 2009 DW Studios L.L.C. and Universal Studios.

The Bottom Line

Director Joe Wright chose The Soloist as his first American film after having earned high praise for his work helming Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. And Wright appears to have been the right choice for this tricky film. He handles the scenes of homeless people and the mentally ill living hard lives on the streets without sugar-coating his subject matter. Wright's made an honest, unflinching film that's uncomfortable to watch at times, a pure joy to behold at others, and overall as faithful to its source material as possible while still being cinematically entertaining. I'm hoping audiences will give it a chance, despite the bad release date and somber subject matter.

GRADE: B+

The Soloist was directed by Joe Wright and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.

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