I’m not sure how to take The Soloist, and that might be its primary problem. Here is a film about a writer who begins to form a friendship with a mentally ill man who is good at playing stringed instruments. All of the elements exist for the film to be an uplifting drama, but it’s missing a finale. This is a story based on real life, but sometimes real life needs to be altered to work as a feature film. That probably would have helped here.
The writer is Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) who actually exists and wrote a book based on the experiences that this film hopes to detail. He’s a columnist for the LA Times and at the beginning of the movie isn’t exactly in the best of ways. He’s overworked, his wife (Catherine Keener) is also his boss and they’re not on good terms, and he had a bicycle accident, although that really doesn’t have anything to do with anything, except to further allow us to see he’s not doing so hot. That’s all about to change, though, because meeting a homeless schizophrenic violinist changes everyone’s lives.
To be fair, the homeless schizophrenic violinist, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), plays the violin, like, super well. So, of course, he deserves to be the subject of the movie. Steve writes an article or two about him, gets him a cello — he used to play the cello and is better at doing so — an apartment, and even a teacher. What a selfless act on the part of Steve Lopez. The only thing he’s getting out of it is … a story, a book, and now a movie. Can you spell “ulterior motives”?
Perhaps I’m being too cynical. I’m sure that Steve, as he’s portrayed in the film, is a nice person who did this out of the kindness of his own heart. “Nathaniel’s story is one that needs to be told,” he must have thought. “Even if it doesn’t really fit well into a movie?” I reply. “Of course! Then more people can experience it,” he says back. “But it doesn’t really work as a movie,” I respond, realizing now that if I could write dialogue I’d probably try writing fiction at some point, but, alas, that isn’t the case. I apologize for that fictional and terrible exchange.
It’s not bad enough that the story the film wants to tell doesn’t really adapt straight to the movies as it is, but there’s also a lack of focus to the narrative, which exacerbates the problem. We get introduced to other characters and situations that don’t directly involve our two leads, and none of that works or makes much of an impact. There’s some mild subtext involving the poor, drugged-out, neighborhoods which would be interesting if anything was done with it, but it exists to exist and not to be dealt with.
What does the film really do? It gives one person a home and, for reasons that don’t really make sense, helps another deal with his familial issues. You can sort of, maybe, a little bit explain how the latter happens. Nathaniel “teaches” Steve what’s important in life, I guess, even if that doesn’t really happen. Steve mostly comes to these revelations on his own. He didn’t need to meet Nathaniel; he would have figured these things out anyway, likely triggered by something else.
And when the film doesn’t work on a narrative level, it’s not uplifting even though it contains so many tropes that signal in that direction, and its characters don’t change in a significant way — one that’s influenced by events in the film — then what is there?
There’s the acting, I suppose. You can appreciate the performances in The Soloist. Jamie Foxx probably thought he would get an Oscar nomination for this role. It has a lot of the points that Oscar looks for when choosing its nominees. He’s playing a homeless and mentally impaired character who rises up to overcome obstacles over the course of two hours. Except the last part doesn’t happen. There are opportunities for him to excel but he never really does. Maybe that’s how it was in real life, and it’s possible that’s more realistic, but it doesn’t work as well in a movie nor does it work for the Oscars. Robert Downey, Jr. is charismatic, funny, and witty in the central role, although the film really belongs to Foxx.
I can see how people could like this. I can see those tired of inspirational movies wanting to see the finale of that type of film subverted by something more melancholic. But that’s counter-culture. That’s contrarian. Why would you want that? It’s not satisfying from a narrative and emotional standpoint. I struggled to feel anything during The Soloist except for boredom. And it’s not like The Soloist is wholly dull; I just couldn’t find anything else to feel while watching it. Boredom was the only open option.
The Soloist is a movie that is unable to work like it wants to because of the way that it chose to script its plot. The narrative is unsatisfactory and doesn’t really result in a whole lot of change in anyone. It doesn’t allow for much of an emotional response from an audience, and in fact made me question exactly what it wanted me to feel, except to question the motives of one Steve Lopez, who now has articles, a book, and a movie based around this story. It’s an inspirational film without the inspirational aspect. And when you remove the crux of the genre, it all falls apart.