Saturday, May 02, 2009

Together They Make Average Music: A Review of The Soloist

As a great fan of Joe Wright’s previous features, the slightly crass but hugely entertaining Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, it’s with a heavy sigh that I report his third film The Soloist to be a middling effort. The weight of the film eventually gets too heavy for itself as it desperately struggles to ensure a happy ending in the last twenty minutes but there is still a good amount of interest here and it confirms my suspicion that Joe Wright is one of the best middlebrow filmmakers working today.

The film marks Joe Wright’s third adaptation, culled from newspaper columns and a memoir by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Robert Downey Jr. plays Lopez in the film (if only all journalists were so lucky) and Jamie Foxx stars as Nathanial Ayers, the subject of Lopez’s book. Ayers is a homeless man living in downtown LA and exhibiting qualities of schizophrenia. But he’s also a remarkable string musician, having studied at The Julliard School during his youth. The film chronicles the friendship that develops between the two men and it’s to the film’s credit that things only become saccharine during the final act.

All too often the topic of disability only appears in film when it is the subject of a ‘quest for a cure’ narrative where easy answers are delivered and miracles materialize just in time for the closing credits. The Soloist deserves recognition for attempting to buck this trend. While Lopez is guilty of pursuing a cure for a large part of the running time (but really, who wouldn’t?), a character finally tells him in regard to Ayers, “You can’t change him, all you can do is be his friend.” It’s an important message but sadly it gets sublimated during the rosy-tinted conclusion. Downey Jr.’s voiceover does mention that Ayers still suffers from dangerous outbreaks but the images in the last scene do nothing to underline that, choosing instead to highlight his charming eccentricities. For 75% of the film, Wright and his actors do a noble job of presenting the story realistically and interestingly but they fumble during the last 25%, losing all momentum and eliminating any real threat from the one scene that absolutely requires it.

The rule of Rain Man would dictate that Foxx as the mentally imbalanced character would be the flashy role while Downey Jr. as the straight-laced cynic would be the thankless supporting role. Curiously, the inverse is true in the case of The Soloist with Downey Jr. inhabiting the peach of a role while Foxx just barely manages not to be overshadowed. This seems to be a product of both the filmmakers’ intent and the performances. Of course, a quick survey of Downey Jr.’s career reminds that he never plays “the background” anyway (except maybe in U.S. Marshalls). But can it be considered showboating when it’s done by someone this talented? Downey Jr. is a joy to watch at every moment, completely engrossing from start to finish with nary a false note. The only flaw in his performance is beyond his control: the inconsistency of the amount of gray in his hair. To Foxx’s credit, he does a good job appearing and acting like someone without a home. The film has a keen awareness of homelessness and reportedly cast real homeless citizens of LA as extras (I don’t doubt it).

Even though it’s only his third film, I’ll eagerly anticipate every film Joe Wright ever makes. His films aren’t entirely successful (those who criticize The Soloist for being uneven are partly correct) but at least the man isn’t afraid to take chances. After all, he did insert Scorsese-esque steadycam shots into Pride and Prejudice and even dared to change Jane Austen’s understated ending. With his penchant for non-linear storytelling, his showy use of sound effects and music, and his fusion of highbrow and lowbrow material, I’m tempted to call him the Quentin Tarantino of literary adaptations. I’m hard pressed to think of another filmmaker who would have taken a film with this much assumed prestige and chosen to offset lengthy classical music interludes with not one, but two gags involving Downey Jr. getting doused by urine. Also of note is the bold sequence half way through the film in which the image fades away and an array of bright colors appear in synch with the classical music on the soundtrack. It’s the kind of daring synesthetic sequence one rarely sees in major studio films, the only other examples that readily spring to mind are 2001 and Ratatouille.


Chris said...

What about Punch Drunk Love? I seem to recall some synesthetic type stuff there...interludes between scenes.

Great review!

Stephen Snart said...

Yes, Punch-Drunk Love is a great example from recent years of synesthesia in cinema. I'd left it out of the post because it wasn't a product of the mainstream studio system in the same way that the 2001, Ratatouille and The Soloist are; although the presence of Adam Sandler and the art house (now Academy approved) popularity of Paul Thomas Anderson suggest it could be included alongside the others.