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Case Number 16955

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The Soloist

DreamWorks // 2009 // 116 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // August 4th, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Daniel Kelly is quite nifty with the spoons.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Soloist (Blu-Ray), published August 4th, 2009, is also available.

The Charge

No one changes anything by playing it safe

Opening Statement

Expectations can make or break a movie experience. Set them low enough and most anything can pleasantly surprise you, raise them too high and you're bound to run afoul of disappointment. The Soloist is a film of remarkable pedigree and thus my anticipation levels where probably pitched at an unreasonable height, a key reason why I ultimately felt a little underwhelmed after viewing the picture. It doesn't help matters that the whole enterprise has been completely misrepresented by advertisements, Paramount shamelessly promoting the movie as an inspiring rags to riches story. In fact, The Soloist is something far less conventional and more unique, but the inordinately high expectations and false perceptions that where rocking around my hand before were enough to taint my appreciation of this effort.

Facts of the Case

Based on the real life experiences of L.A Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man) and his relationship with homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx, The Kingdom), The Soloist is a retelling of their incredible story and an investigation of the homelessness that has engulfed L.A. The two men met by chance as Lopez looked for inspiration for his writing, and the film starts on the same note, later descending into the complexities of their relationship and a startling look at the mental disturbances that held sway on Nathaniel's mind. Steve, who is battling his own demons, is shocked at how Nathaniel's passion for his craft gives him the strength to carry on and keep bringing his beautiful music to the city streets.

The Evidence

The Soloist says a lot of interesting things and features two very accomplished central performances but ultimately as a whole feels cluttered and messy. The narrative bungles too many different characters into its 116 minute runtime, and in a bid to bring an extra layer of originality to his interpretation, Director Joe Wright is prone to suffocating the audience with odd bursts of visual ambition and several unclear and often unsatisfying flashbacks. This is definitely not a bad film, indeed it's for the most part a good one, but there are too many flaws for it to fully deliver on the scale that audience members will demand.

The Soloist marks Wright's third feature-length directorial effort and in fairness it's probably his weakest. Pride and Prejudice was a successful retelling of the Jane Austin classic, whilst 2007's Atonement was a heavyweight awards contender, something The Soloist is unlikely to see much of. Indeed, the picture was initially pegged for release in November 2008 but studio executives clearly felt it would be unable to pack the required critical heat to interest the Academy, meaning that it saw release in April of this year instead. The film has the talent behind and in front of the camera to be a big artistic draw but somewhere along the way things got muddled, turning the potentially great into the merely decent.

Any concerns that one might have over the feature are nothing to do with Foxx or Downey, both of whom apply their acting chops wonderfully. Foxx is probably the most deserving of attention but his articulate representation of a talented man in fits of mental distress probably wouldn't have been possible without a restrained and grounded Lopez. Downey holds back his usual fire and provides a slower and more thoughtful performance than we've come to expect from the man, it's easy to forget that amidst his brand of high theatrics and cartoon zaniness, Downey is actually a very accomplished dramatic thespian. He and Foxx are both in great form in The Soloist, they portray two troubled men with energy and intelligence whilst also taking the time to consummate an effective onscreen bond. The talented Catherine Keener (The 40 Year Old Virgin) is underused as Lopez's ex-wife whilst Tom Hollander (Valkyrie) briefly appears spouting a truly heinous American accent, but the acting success is in the hands of Downey and Foxx, and they seem completely safe.

The story is overly saturated in supporting characters and seemingly innocuous occurrences, in retrospective some of what Wright chooses to include in the movie does very little to actually flesh out the characters or their situations. The Soloist requires a lengthier runtime and more intricate screenplay in order to effectively represent the real life journey that Ayers and Lopez endured, but a little added guile in the editing room would have done this interpretation the world of good. The narrative is still cohesive and easy enough to follow, but it's messier than most directors would desire, and someone of Wright's ability should have been able to cook up a trimmer and more agreeable cut. Whilst much of this did actually happen, the way it has translated to film is jerky and forced, any natural rhythm that the filmmakers might have hoped for just not apparent in this cluttered and unnecessarily expansive retelling.

The soundtrack is filled with some beautiful classical music but some of the visual work is too trippy for its own good; just as the viewer settles into the story Wright unfortunately pulls them out with a dash of psychedelic madness, his attempts to convey Nathaniel's fragile mental state incredibly hit and miss. Foxx does a fantastic job of creating the shell of a man whose mind is in tatters, but Wright never cements it with his various bag of tricks, rushes of bold color and voices in the head just not fully releasing the potential this factor holds over the story. The flashbacks through Nathaniel's life are interesting only as in so much they detail how he got to be homeless despite his musical gifts. They don't really flesh out anything extra that isn't detailed in the conversations between the main figures and thus maybe Wright really ought to have left them on the editing room floor. There is the argument that to fully appreciate Ayer's humble beginnings you have to see them but that doesn't mean the audience has to be treated to watching his entire mental disintegration.

Paramount deserves credit for putting together such a good release for a domestic box-office failure. There are several featurettes on this disc along with a commentary track. Wright is the host for the chat track and makes a decent stab of excusing some of his more peculiar and less satisfying decisions, he keeps talking and fills the commentary with interesting tit bits so overall it's a grand effort. The featurettes are as always a decidedly mixed bag but they're in credible quantity, which excuses some of the weaker and more EPK-styled offerings. The best is a talk with the real Ayers and Lopez, the film sometimes bungles their story but there is no denying it's a fascinating one. Hearing it from there mouths is actually rather beautiful and had me gripped from start to finish. There are also deleted scenes to round out the bonus material. The video presentation is excellent but I found at times the dialogue was drowned out by music in the audio track; it takes a few minutes for the viewer to really get their ear in on this particular release. Still the impressive stack of additional content and quality video make it easy to forgive the occasionally patchy audio.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Obviously the performances are the big artistic saving point, but one can't neglect to mention some of the interesting social commentary and the uplifting final message the movie pushes. Wright depicts the homeless in squalor with what I suspect is pinpoint accuracy and it's a rather harrowing recreation. The film ends with the message that thousands upon thousands are homeless in L.A alone and that across the world many millions more like them live in unacceptable filth and often have their lives at risk. If The Soloist can actively make a handful of people take to battling the intense levels of homelessness then who cares if it has cinematic problems? Keeping people of the streets is far more important.

Finally whilst the movie isn't the uplifting and mawkish effort that the trailer proclaimed it does at least end on a positive message, passion and love for life can see you through the toughest hardships. The movie is much bleaker than I was expecting but I have to say I was glad when it concluded on such a morally empowering note.

Closing Statement

The Soloist is definitely not as good as I'd hoped, but it's still not a bad film. The narrative is disjointed and some of Wright's directorial choices really grate, but the performances are electric. Ultimately, it's an interesting tale with a solid end message. I doubt the Academy is going to give it any recognition next year (though the performances might kindle some interest) and in truth The Soloist is too flawed to warrant much high profile awards attention. Still, if you can stomach some frustrating faults, there is still a healthy amount to admire.

The Verdict

Guilty of falling short of expectations.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 89
Audio: 82
Extras: 88
Acting: 91
Story: 84
Judgment: 81

Perp Profile

Studio: DreamWorks
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Biographical
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Deleted Scenes
• Featurettes


• IMDb

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