The Soloist, though well-acted, eventually drowns itself in Oscar bait

by Beacon Staff • April 15, 2009

iThe Soloist/i, the latest film from Golden Globe-nominated director Joe Wright, is an amalgam of all the qualities needed to get either the film itself or its actors nominated for an Oscar.

While its plot is moving and its message of the life-altering power of music is ocassionally inspiring, the film is clearly Oscar fodder.

Joe Wright is a high-profile director whose previous works include the critically acclaimed iAtonement/i and iPride and Prejudice/i.

His new film is based on a true story, another trend running through Oscar contenders of the last five years as evidenced by iMilk/i (2008), iThe Last King of Scotland/i (2006), iThe Queen/i (2006), iCapote/i (2005) and a half dozen more.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a columnist for iThe Los Angeles Times/i who is down on his luck, recently divorced from a fellow journalist and searching for any glimpse of what he used to love about his job.

He finds his beacon of hope in Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a homeless musical virtuoso who suffers from schizophrenia.

Played by Jamie Foxx, the street-dwelling savant is a man who is kind and lovable, yet deeply tortured by his mental illness.

On April 17, 2005, Steve Lopez published his first column on Nathaniel Anthony Ayers in iThe LA Times/i. Ayers was living on the street when Lopez first found him.

He had been a musical genius at a young age and attended the Juilliard School for cello performance before his schizophrenia set in.

Lopez proceeded to write a series of columns on Ayers and, over time, helped him get his life back to some semblance of normality, finding him an apartment and reconnecting him with his estranged family.

In the film, Downey's Lopez is divorced and bitter. In an April, 2008 interview in iThe LA Times/i, Steve Lopez said he was happily married at the time he wrote the columns on Ayers.

Why make this seemingly unnecessary change then? Odds are Wright and screenwriter Susannah Grant found the fictionalized version of Ayers far more interesting. And everyone knows that characters who lead less than harmonious lives tend to be more Oscar friendly.

The acting in iThe Soloist/i is up to par with what audiences would expect from two Oscar veterans. Downey and Foxx give the dynamic and often turbulent relationship between their characters energy.

From Foxx's first disjointed rant on the subjects of Beethoven, the spelling of his name and Colonel Sanders, the audience can see the many levels of his character.

Downey's performance as the archetypal, cynical journalist is similar to his hyper-active portrayal of San Francisco Chronicle police reporter Paul Avery in 2007's iZodiac/i.

Both characters utilize Downey's signature delivery; quick, and sarcastic. Lopez and Ayers make a believable and endearing transition from a reporter and his subject to being true friends.

However, despite its strong acting, the film fails to delve deeply into the themes of music and redemption.

If more attention had been paid to the themes, the film would have actually felt like a consistently involving true story rather than a film that uses a true story to come across as prestigious and deep.

iThe Soloist/i is certainly entertaining in moments, and the depth that it lends to its characters isn't half bad; but nothing feels completely sincere.

The film is too smooth, too touching and too glossy to feel like anything more than Oscar bait.