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The Soloist Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 25 September 2009 11:15
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx
Certificate: 12A

After a poor turn in the US, The Soloist heads here, ready to restart its campaign for Oscar glory. It seems harsh to dismiss this drama as derivative and Oscar-grabbing but the signs are all there: music, mental illness, homeless folk, friendship. And director Joe Wright lays it all on thick. Like, Forrest Gump thick.

For your consideration as Best Actor, Robert Downey Jr. is Steve Lopez, a divorced journalist who stumbles upon an ideal topic for his LA Times column: Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr (Foxx), a down-and-out musician, once a Juilliard's prodigy before he dropped out to live on the streets. Carting about his life in a shopping trolley, he serenades the city in tunnels and parkways, playing Beethoven on a broken violin. His depressing tale seems the perfect subject for the newspaper - and, naturally, a book and then an Oscar-winning movie.

So here we are, with two amazing actors pulling out all the tricks. Downey Jr., sprinkling his lonely outcast with a bit of white man guilt, takes his cliched role and makes it honest. Foxx, meanwhile, comes over all drama school with his repeated mumbling, pained expression and generally over-the-top twitching. The result is Lopez's character stealing the show, drawing attention away from the schizophrenia that would usually take centre stage.

Lopez wants to help Nathaniel, get him into sheltered accommodation, find him some drugs and put his life back on track. But Lopez's gift of a cello, donated by a reader, comes with strings attached, leading to an unlikely friendship ranging from violent threats to hero worship ("My God is Steve Lopez!") And in between all this, Joe Wright wrestles with the weighty content, determined to show us skidrow square on.

Casting real homeless people as extras is a bold move, but only adds to the movie's over-earnest efforts. Keen to capture everything he comes across, Wright shoves in flashbacks along with police brutality, following a muddled script which can't decide what tale to tell. Sure, it's a true story, but some form of structure would be a good idea. Shots of pigeons flying over motorways doesn't help much.

But at the crux of the piece is old Ludwig Van, whose music underscores everything. Alternating restraint and silence with bursts of soaring symphonies, the sound design here is incredible, even if the visuals are over-bearing. At one point, in Disney Hall (home of the LA Philharmonic), the screen goes black, leaving us with flourishes of Fantasia-like colour - a terrible move. It's like watching a giant Windows Media Player. But close your eyes to block out the stuff on show, and listen: The Soloist is a heavy-handed watch, but sounds fantastic.


There's no contrived ending, but The Soloist sits firmly in Academy territory. Over-directed, over-acted, but not overly-good.



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  • academy award
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  • jamie foxx
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  • nathaniel anthony ayers
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