How could a drama about an odd-but-true friendship between Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez and mentally ill, homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers - with Robert Downey, Jr., and Jamie Foxx in the leads, no less - not be Academy Award bait, in which case the film should be released during the fall Oscar rush? Unless, of course, there's something wrong with the movie.
The truth is, there's nothing wrong with The Soloist. Then again, there's also nothing right about the film, either.
In the parlance of the times, it is what it is: a mediocre and not particularly memorable drama, buoyed by steady performances by the leads, but ultimately undone by a director whose odd creative license to get into a character's head proves to be a major disruption.
Steve Lopez (Downey) is your prototypical newspaper columnist as created by Hollywood. He's sharp, quick-witted, and cynical, and his personal life is a wreck. Divorced and single, he also has no friends - at least, outside of the newsroom. In fact, when he returns home from an emergency room visit after planting his face in the pavement in a bloody bike accident, there are no voice mails from well-wishers to greet him. Instead he sits alone in his home, comforted only by Neil Diamond blaring through the speakers.
Ayers is alone as well. He's also homeless and schizophrenic. A Juilliard-trained cellist before his mental illness manifested itself and he fled the school and his family in Cleveland, Ayers now plays Beethoven on a beat-up violin in parks and on busy sidewalks to birds and passers-by in downtown Los Angeles.
Lopez is drawn to the music, and he writes a series of columns about Ayers' life and wondrous talent. The more he chronicles Ayers' situation, the closer the pair become. Lopez reaches out to help the man escape the streets and to find a treatment for his illness, but becomes increasingly frustrated as he encounters little help from an overloaded system and overwhelmed social workers.
Ayers isn't the only one in need of help, either, as Lopez's personal life begins to deteriorate as well. Theirs is a strange friendship made believable by Downey and Foxx. In fact, Downey is probably the best thing about The Soloist. He's reliable in the film's most important role - that is, the only character with an emotional arc.
Ayers is the focal point of The Soloist, yet there's nothing particularly showy about him, other than his musical talent. Foxx keeps the over-the-top moments in check. His performance is not Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man good, nor is it Sean Penn in I Am Sam bad. It's solid - forgettable, perhaps, but certainly not a painful embarrassment.
The same can't be said for the work of The Soloist director Joe Wright, who employs clumsy and inadvertently comical gimmicks to bring audiences closer to Ayers and to better understand him.
In flashbacks to Ayers' Juilliard days, for example, Wright relies on menacing voices to demonstrate the schizophrenia as it rages in the musician's head. Or later, as Ayers sits motionless during an orchestral rehearsal, even as his mind races to the stirring music, Wright chooses to cut to a black screen with flourishes of animated color bursts, like an outtake from Disney's Fantasia.
The effect doesn't add to the film so much as it detracts.
Now we know the reason why The Soloist's release was delayed from the fall until just before the summer box-office season: They don't give out Oscars for mediocrity.
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