by Charles Lyons-Burt Film Horizon Line

The Soloist — Joe Wright

May 12, 2009

Until now, the critically acclaimed filmmaker Joe Wright has had an impressive career. In 2005, Wright moved from made-for-television productions like Charles II: The Power and the Passion to a big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Pride & Prejudice. The latter is a near-classic; a superbly acted, crisply shot take on Austen’s masterpiece, and a loyal adaptation with a fresh style that announced an exciting new voice in cinema. Wright followed his debut with another adaptation of a renowned British novel, Atonement, and this sophomore feature was perhaps even better than his first: a sure-footed step forward for Wright, stylistically. Thus, he left himself with a tough act to follow, and the director’s latest feature, The Soloist, is a disappointingly lesser film than its predecessors. The film doesn’t break any new ground, and may, in fact, be a step back for the director, but it isn’t without its virtues.

The Soloist tells the true story of a blossoming friendship between LA Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) and schizophrenic street musician Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx). After a biking accident, a bandaged Lopez meets Nathaniel at the foot of a statue of Beethoven, playing his two-string violin. His playing captures Lopez’s attention, and when he returns to his work, Lopez finds that he’s out of ideas for a column, so he decides to write one on Nathaniel. Lopez investigates a bit more into the troubled man’s past, finding that Nathaniel studied at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music before inexplicably dropping out in his second year. Lopez is inspired to help Nathaniel find his way, mostly because he has nothing else going on in his life; he is bitter about a fizzled-out relationship with his ex-wife and editor (played by the bankable Catherine Keener), and ambivalent about his job. Steve finds a place for Nathaniel to sleep (the LAMP society for the homeless), and tries to delve further into his new friend’s hazy past, despite Nathaniel’s reluctance.

As does Ramin Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo,” The Soloist explores the difficulties of an opposites-attract, interracial friendship and the dynamic that grows out of it. Downey Jr. and Foxx do an adequate job of capturing that dynamic, the former turning in an unforgiving portrayal of the selfish, only occasionally likable Lopez. Foxx’s performance is capable too, though obviously angling for an Oscar: the roll of a gifted artist with emotional issues is an excellent vehicle for attracting the Academy. Still, the central problem with the film is that its plot is completely predictable, and its characters less than original. Luckily for us, the talented ensemble makes the most of what it has to work with, and skilled craftsman Joe Wright’s consistent stylistic choices are to be admired. Expert cinematography, often filmed from a God’s-eye perspective, has subtle religious implications that complement the characters’ spiritual affiliations.