LA journalist Steve Lopez (Downey Jr.) is in search of a story. And, thanks to a cycling accident, he finds one in colourful tramp Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx), who has a secret history as a musical prodigy. Over time, though, Lopez becomes more than a story; he becomes a mission.
Joe Wright’s The Soloist arrives belated and laden with baggage. Originally slated to hit last Oscar season, Wright’s follow-up to his glorious Atonement fell afoul of studio politics and was shunted into an April US release slot, where it fared poorly. But anyone thinking this indicates the turkey-whiff of a stinker will be proven pleasantly wrong.
Having excelled in the Britflick comfort zone of period drama, Wright decamps to modern Los Angeles. Not that that means this is also an attempt to go commercial. In fact, it’s the opposite — a clue to its status as a studio-political victim. It’s a film about vagrancy, mental illness, music, journalism, friendship and LA itself. Admirably, but to its own detriment, The Soloist asks intelligent questions, but is honest enough to admit that there are no answers. Like its protagonist, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), it finds a great story: that of Nathaniel (Jamie Foxx), the Juilliard drop-out cello prodigy who is now a psychedelically attired, trolley-trundling vagrant, scratching at violins in the acoustic sanctuary of a busy Angelino underpass. It has a story, but it can’t find a solution.
It’s not really giving anything away to say you shouldn’t expect a punch-the-air ending; neither should you hope for a welter of cathartic sobs. Furthermore, the two leads have taken standard showy roles — dogged-but-flawed journalist and schizophrenic hobo/musical prodigy respectively — and underpinned both with weight and warmth.
Wright himself further develops as a visualist. A few scenes might smack of obvious symbolism, but in his hands they somehow (forgive the pun) hit the right notes: one, for example, represents Nathaniel’s blissful perception of Beethoven by splashing colourful lights over a black screen. Elsewhere, Wright manages to lift even the most mundane moments. One great sequence involves nothing more than the arrival of a gift at Steve’s desk. Here we take the gift’s-eye-view as it whirls and weaves through the office, punchlining with a great reaction shot from Downey Jr.. This recalls virtuoso tweaks from the likes of Fincher, Zemeckis and Spielberg.
Still, as much as he should be praised for mastering such smart but non-crowdpleasing material, surely it’s now time for a cast-iron blockbuster?
Intelligent and uncompromising, with knock-out performances from Downey Jr. and Foxx .