Movie Review – The Soloist (2009)



The Soloist is an affecting study of male friendship. Directed by Joe Wright and adapted by Susannah Grant from Steve Lopez’s book of the same title, the film stars Robert Downey Jr. as LA Times columnist Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless musician he befriended.

The film shows the men meeting under a statue of Beethoven in a downtown plaza. His curiosity piqued by someone who would play a violin that had only two strings, Lopez struck up a conversation with Ayers. That first conversation led to a column, which led to a widely-read and highly acclaimed series of columns about Ayers and homelessness in Los Angeles. The main story, focused on Lopez, tracks the pair’s deepening intimacy; it is interwoven with flashbacks to Ayers’ childhood and young adulthood, when his promising career as a professional cellist was derailed by mental illness.

Downey is typically excellent while Foxx reaffirms his affinity for meaty dramatic roles. The Soloist is particularly good in their characters one-on-one scenes. The performances subtly convey Lopez and Ayers’ growing familiarity with each other and that defining characteristic of friendship: ease in each other’s presence. Nelsan Ellis stands out in the supporting cast in the role of director of a skid row mission.

The nature and expression of friendship between men is treated with the respectful seriousness usually reserved for films about women’s friendships. The film’s restrained, straightforward depiction of mental illness and chronic homelessness, subjects more often sentimentalized or mocked, is also commendable. Short of the better-ignored “feel-good moment” coda, the conclusion is credible and emotionally honest.

Ayers’ life-long passion for classical music is integral to the film. It is a defining element of his personality and personal history; his connection to Lopez begins in and for some time is carried by it. Wright uses several techniques to represent visually Ayers and other characters’ emotional responses to music, to mixed success. He relies heavily on reaction shots, which are generally effective if sometimes repetitious. There is a lovely sequence using Wright’s stock-in-trade as a director, the fluid tracking shot; the first time Ayers plays the cello for Lopez, the camera is sent soaring in transports of joy over the concrete city. Taking a leaf from the Fantasia playbook, Ayers’ experience of a Beethoven symphony performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic is represented by a headache-inducing electronic light show in bright colors and shifting patterns.

The Soloist is finally a loving tribute to print journalism in the age of cable news and the blogosphere. Though mostly superfluous to the plot, the scenes set at the paper’s offices and showing Lopez gathering “human comedy” material for his columns are a charming homage to classic newsroom dramas. The public response to his series about Ayers is a salutary reminder of a city newspaper’s capacity to draw people together in common cause.

3 stars


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