DreamWorks // 2009 // 116 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 4th, 2009
Life has a mind of its own.
It's a common enough trope that genius and madness are twin sides of a different coin, and with good reason. The key to most genius is the ability to see the familiar in a new and often surprising way. Much of mental illness is also seeing the world in a different, albeit non-functional, way. However, I'm not sure this connection does a favor to either the genius or the madman, for it makes the genius scary and creates an aura of expectation around the mentally ill. This is why, generally, I'm skeptical of any film about a crazy genius, especially one supposedly based on a true story. My guard was certainly up with The Soloist, a film that seems to come preloaded with excess sincerity and heartstring tugging pathos. Luckily director Joe Wright doesn't pour it on thick and instead crafts a sensitive portrait of two flawed human beings coming together through music. The Soloist (Blu-ray), a strong release, is a film that drama fans should be seeking out.
Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder) is a successful columnist for the Los Angeles Times. One day while walking the streets he meets violin player Nathanial Ayers, a mentally ill homeless man who casually mentions his time at Julliard. Lopez is intrigued and begins to investigate Ayers' life, finding truth in his stories about Julliard. He begins to write about Ayers, and when a reader sends in a cello for Ayers, Lopez convinces him to play the instrument inside instead of on the street. So begins Lopez's attempts to coax Ayers back to health, but he's challenged at every turn by the depths of Ayers' illness.
One of the best scenes in Tropic Thunder involves Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, in full blackface, telling Ben Stiller's Tugg Speedman to "never go full retard." It's an important lesson about how Hollywood rewards actors for only taking their performances so far (or, perhaps, how prejudiced Hollywood is against the mentally handicapped). So, it's no surprise that movie karma dictated that Downey's next performance would be opposite an actor who was doing his best not to go "full retard."
Make no mistake, no matter what Ayers' story really is, or what heartstrings this movie might pull on, the real reason to watch The Soloist is to see two actors at the top of their game sharing the screen. Jamie Foxx has been someone to watch at least since Ray, and (with the notable exception of Gothika) Robert Downey Jr. has been on a streak since 2003's The Singing Detective. Together the pair is unstoppable, and The Soloist is worth watching just for them.
Steve Lopez is a character nearing the end of his rope: he's divorced from his wife (who's also his editor), he doesn't talk to his son enough, and his job is becoming more and more depressing. Downey imbues this character with an earnest sadness that doesn't rely on histrionics to make his point. Instead it's a quiet, thoughtful performance that surprises with its depth and intensity. Jamie Foxx takes a similar approach to Ayers, who is portrayed as schizophrenic. Of course his performance contains the tics we associate with the mentally ill, like talking to himself, spelling things out, obsessing over cleanliness, and the details of his environment. Foxx might have been effective if he'd stopped there, but his Ayers doesn't seem defined by either his illness or his musical ability. Instead, we get glimpses of his home life and his love of music in addition to his talents and problems. It's a convincing performance, and I'm sure most people wouldn't bat an eye if they saw a made-up Foxx on the streets of Los Angeles.
Getting past the actors, The Soloist has an interesting premise at heart. The connection of a mentally ill musician and a famous columnist sounds like the perfect idea for a movie. The only problem is that there isn't really a story there in the traditional Hollywood narrative sense. There's not sudden cure of Ayers, both men are still living, there's no competition or anything else for the film to build to. Surprisingly, this works in the film's favor. Rather than building to some spectacular (and likely fake) conclusion, The Soloist revels in the journey the two leads make together as they learn real lessons from each, not the stereotypical three-hanky crap. Although this leaves the film rather ambiguous at the end, it also makes the film seem more real.
The presentation of this Blu-ray disc is about as fantastic as the lead performances. As you'd expect from a recent film, The Soloist looks absolutely beautiful in hi-def. Detail is high, colors are strong, and there's nary a bit of compression artifacting to distract from the picture. The Dolby TrueHD track is equally well-done with a fine balance between dialogue and music.
Extras are also extensive, starting with a commentary by director Joe Wright where he shares production info and discussion of the film's thematic elements. We're also treated to a number of featurettes, including a solid behind-the-scenes peek as well as a discussion of Ayers education at Julliard and some info on the problem of homelessness in Los Angeles. The disc also boasts some deleted scenes and the film's trailer. However, the highlight of the extras might be the interview with the real Steve Lopez and Nathanial Ayers. Seeing the two men together is a revelation after the film.
I can't say I'm a huge fan of some of the changes made for convenience in the script. For instance the Steve Lopez of the film is divorced, whereas the real-life Lopez is and was happily married. These little contrivances hurt rather than help the ambiguous narrative of the film.
The Soloist is a solid drama that manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of the genre while offering two astoundingly simple performances by two amazing actors. With a solid Blu-ray presentation this is a film that's easy to recommend to anyone looking for a good drama.
Virtuoso, and not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes