The Soloist

Director    Joe Wright
Starring    Robert Downey Jr, Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Stephen Root
Release    24 APR (US) 25 SEP (UK)    Certificate 12
4 stars


24th September 2009

Mental illness? Homelessness? A man battling all odds to express his extraordinary gift? Based on a true story? Yes, it's 'Oscar Winning by Numbers' and it comes from a bunch of people who are already familiar with the golden baldie, so it's kind of a shoo-in for the Academy Awards.

Well, it would have been. After heavy, award-touting promotion for The Soloist, Paramount suddenly delayed its release in America so it missed out on being the strong contender for last year's statues, and instead opened in the US in April, the Oscar equivalent of 'No Mans Land'.

While this seems like a simple error on behalf of the studio, the problem actually runs deeper than this: we are now presented with a disowned film, one for which Paramount apparently lost faith in its chances at Oscar success. Well, let's all queue up to see that one then...

In many ways, it's understandable given the saccharine sentimentality and heavy-handed morality evident from the outset, but cinemagoers will probably be very surprised to learn that The actually pretty good.

When Steve Lopez (Downey Jr), a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, stumbles upon a homeless and mentally ill Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx) playing a two-stringed violin, he is inspired to tell the musician's life story. In helping Ayers to get his life back on track, Lopez embarks on a friendship that ultimately enriches his own life.

Clear a space on the shelf and get ready with the polish, right?

It's obvious to say that the main attraction here is the heavyweight acting of Robert Downey Jr and Jamie Foxx, but although the usual beats of heart-warming, life-changing moments are always expected, it is still an utter joy to watch. With the former providing the warmth in contrast to the latter's crazy, the movie rests squarely on the interplay between the two, and it really couldn't have been performed better.

[gallery]I offer no pretence about my love for the Downey Jr - as far as I am concerned, every film should take a leaf out of The Incredible Hulk's book and shoe-horn in a cameo from the charismatic bastard. Seriously, I could watch that man in anything - Gothika, Ally McBeal, a shower cubicle... anything.

It might disappoint some to learn though that he foregoes his trademark caricature smugness and dry know-it-all humour to turn in an unusually low-key performance here. It is, however, a superbly nuanced portrayal, subtly revealing the layers of humanity within a complex individual instead of what would have been, in other hands, simply a typical tired and cynical hack.

Comparatively, and in keeping with his character's distinctly contrasting nature, Foxx goes all out in his role as former-Juilliard student, Nathaniel Ayers. Going all 'method' on us unsuspecting viewers by not only going so far as learning the cello from scratch and then having a dentist crack his teeth in order to better look the part as homeless bum, but also in going to 'a very dark place' to channel Ayers' inner demons.

Dust down the tux and make a list of the people you wish to thank, right?

Well, it's not these award-baiting traits that make the depiction of Ayers so astonishing - it's Foxx's realistic take on his condition. Never so patronising as to overtly play the 'crazy' card (Downey Jr obviously reiterated his 'full retard' rule), Foxx is simply incoherent at a moment's notice and, as such, correctly highlights the fact that we will never fully appreciate or understand what is going through Nathaniel's mind.

And not being patronising is the key to this whole movie. Atonement director, Joe Wright bravely takes the cameras directly into LA's famous skid row in one of many steps he takes to accurately present the city's homelessness problem. We don't see drunks around a burning oil drum, shouting abuse or getting into fights. There are just simple lingering shots on the many, many real-life homeless extras that have nothing better to do than sit and contemplate their lot in life.

If anything, however, there follows the only major criticism of the film - in telling a story about a mentally ill, homeless man and his remarkable musical gift, there really is no room for anything other than glimpses of the wider issue, which feels like the film is rather frustratingly just scratching the surface of a bigger story.

Shots of disease-ravaged pigeons beside slumbering bag ladies are all we are offered to represent a problem at large which is supposed to provide both the context and backdrop to an otherwise inspirational tale.

While this is unavoidable in a film already packed out with issues to explore, you can't help but feel that the film is just over-reaching slightly for that Oscar. But pack away the tux and tear up the speech-notes because, the chances are, this film won't see the award-recognition for which it so persistently strives.

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