Monday, April 27, 2009

Movie Review: The Solosit

The Soloist **
Directed by:
Joe Wright.
Written By: Susannah Grant based on the book by Steve Lopez.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr. (Steve Lopez), Jamie Foxx (Nathaniel Ayers), Catherine Keener (Mary), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Jennifer), Tom Hollander (Graham Claydon), Stephen Root (Curt).

I have grown tired of movies about people with a disability or mental illness triumphing over adversity. All the movies are pretty much exactly the same. A character appears to be lost, but with the help of a supportive friend, they are able to turn their lives around. They overcome hardships and difficulties, but in the end, they are okay. We’ve seen it before too many times by now. The Soloist is the latest movie to take on this storyline, and despite the presence of Robert Downey Jr., who is brilliant as always, the movie never rises above its own limitations.

Downey plays Steve Lopez, a reporter for the LA Times who writes a human interest column. The paper, like many across the country, is having trouble because young people don’t read the paper anymore – they go online to get their news. But Lopez continues to plug away at his column week after week. One day, while on another assignment, he meets Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) on the street admiring a statute of Beethoven. He finds out that this guy, who obviously has some sort of mental illness, went to Julliard years ago. Now he’s living on the streets, and playing a violin that only has two strings. Lopez writes a column about him, and assumes that that will be the end of it. He’s wrong.

Something about Ayers touches people who read the paper. People send their old instruments to Lopez to give to Ayers. In return, Lopez reaches out to a group home in a bad area of LA in the hopes that they can help Ayers in off the street, and perhaps get him to take medication. Ayers is resistant to everything that Lopez tries, but gradually, by baby steps, he starts to come along. In Lopez he has found a friend. Lopez is somewhat horrified by this. He has always been a selfish prick, and he doesn’t want to be responsible. But he cannot say no.

Downey, it must be said, is wonderful in the movie, and he keeps the movie from being boring. He doesn’t much resemble the real Lopez in terms of his personality, but the Lopez we see on screen is much more interesting. My guess is that after Downey was cast, they did some rewrites to make Lopez more Downey-like. The result is an interesting character and performance by Downey, but he’s stuck in a plot that just isn’t up to his level. The same could be said for Jamie Foxx is also quite good in the movie. Despite the fact that characters like this always win, or at least get nominated for Oscars, I have never been as impressed as some with the performances. They are, by necessity, one note. Foxx does precisely what he is supposed to do in the film. It’s not his fault that the character just isn’t that interesting. The rest of the cast is wasted, particularly Catherine Keener. She seems like a woman who is completely together, but then there is one scene where she gets drunk at a benefit and says things she shouldn’t. Nothing in the movie leading up this point makes us think that she’s an alcoholic or is troubled – and then the scene is never mentioned again. It’s a very odd scene. Tom Hollander also has a small role as a religious cellist who tries to give Ayers lessons – but the character is never developed enough to make sense.

The director of the movie is Joe Wright, whose previous two films, Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, were both great. He seems at home with the British countryside in period pieces. But in modern day Los Angeles, he is lost. He never captures the right look or feel for the movie, which seems to be based more on other movies, then the city itself.
The film ends up being a jumbled mess that never truly involves us, or makes us feel for the characters. The film just sits there on the screen, and while we are never really bored by it, we never truly care either. This should have been a good little “inspirational” drama, but it isn’t. It’s just there.

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