Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Produced and Abandoned: The Soloist (2009)

Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr in The Soloist
I was just about ready to give up on Jamie Foxx. Everything he'd done since his rightly celebrated turn as Ray Charles was utterly forgettable. It’s not that he'd been necessarily giving bad performances, but that his acting was begining to resemble doing chores. For example, while playing a composite of Berry Gordy in Dreamgirls (2006), he was so dull that it was hard to believe that the founder of the exuberant Motown Records could have been so dour. Portraying the homeless schizophrenic musician Nathaniel Ayers in The Soloist, however, brought Jamie Foxx back to life.

The Soloist, in a sense, also came back from the dead. Two years ago, the film found itself held up from theatrical release for a considerable period leaving the impression that it was a dud. (The inspirational trailer didn’t win the movie any favours either.) Despite the odds against it, however, The Soloist isn’t half bad. Directed by the talented Brit Joe Wright (Pride and PrejudiceAtonement), the picture is based on Los Angeles Times’ journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), who one day comes across Ayers playing a two-string violin for small change. During a brief exchange, Ayers tells Lopez in a verbal spree that he once attended Juilliard. Sensing a lifestyle story, Lopez follows up Ayers’ claim and discovers that he had indeed attended the prestigious music school. But he dropped out due to mental illness. While doing the story, though, he befriends Ayers with the hope of restoring him. Of course, Lopez, who was once married to his editor (Catherine Keener), has problems of his own sustaining passion in his life. So the actions he takes to help Ayers (which include getting him off the street, music lessons and a recital) are partly attempts to find a reborn life for himself.

While The Soloist might fall into the camp of being a treadworn inspirational story, in many ways, it’s a different kind – one with a melancholic tinge. Former Salon magazine movie critic Stephanie Zacharek, I think, nailed the movie’s theme when she wrote that “the redemption that director Joe Wright and his actors go for in The Soloist is the thorny kind, the sort that means acknowledging limitations instead of blithely believing you can break through them.” It’s within those limitations that the movie works quite well. Lopez discovers that his friendship can’t cure what ails Ayers, but it does provide enough stability to allow for a state of grace. And The Soloist, at its best, achieves grace.

What makes Foxx’s performance so remarkable is that he doesn’t make the mistake that Dustin Hoffman made in Rain Man (1988), or that Robert de Niro repeated in Awakenings (1990), or that Sean Penn inflicted on us in I Am Sam (2001). Foxx doesn’t turn Ayers' disability into the character; instead, he finds the character within the disability. Ayers’ desire to play music shines through despite his problems finding a comfortable place for himself in the world. While Downey is in good form as Lopez, the part doesn’t really bring out anything new or fresh in his acting. Lopez is merely the catalyst that returns Ayers to music, but his part is mostly tangential. The Soloist also suffers from a number of digressions including a sub-plot about the death of newspapers in an electronic age (something that also went nowhere in 2009's State of Play). There’s no follow-through either in Wright’s examination of Lopez and his ex-wife’s relationship. The delay in the film’s release likely led to hasty last minute cuts which possibly hampered the coherence of some of the plot.

Despite its flaws, though, The Soloist is a pretty even-tempered work by a director who has a real flair for dramatic nuance. Despite the melodramatic turn at the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice (2005), I preferred his version to the over-celebrated one made popular by A&E. Atonement (2007) was an astonishingly sustained work about regret and forgiveness. The Soloist is less risky. Doing an adaptation of Lopez’s book, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, and Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (Putnam, 2008), is not quite the same as adapting Jane Austen, or Ian McEwen. But Joe Wright still brings a calm intelligence to this work. He clearly finds substance and entertainment mutually compatible.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) in April at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. His four-part lecture series, Film Music: A Neglected Art, begins at the JCC Prosserman today, March 23, from 1pm-3pm.

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