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Movie Review: The Soloist

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The Soloist was originally scheduled to open the AFI Film Festival last October; however, at the last minute Paramount pulled the film from the schedule and from its scheduled wide release. It was an odd, and unexplained change, especially considering the Oscar-bait nature of the story. It was originally pushed to March 13, but was moved again to its final resting place, April 24. I find its placing in the schedule a little strange; putting it out the weekend before the dawn of the '09 blockbuster season seems to show a lack of confidence on the part of the studio. Should we worry? Yes and no. The movie has an Oscar-bait feel to it, making me glad it is not in any danger of becoming Oscar fodder, because while it is emotionally affecting, it is  incomplete from a narrative standpoint.

thesoloistpic6The biggest draw of The Soloist is its two leads. Yes, the story would appear to be a compelling option, but seriously, who was not more interested in seeing the pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx? Two skilled actors, with the added bonus of one of them being a fantastic comeback story, the likes only Hollywood itself could write.

The film is based on a true story, with a few changes, of course. Whenever you approach a film that is based on a true story, whether it tells you right up front or not, you need to prepare yourself a little beforehand. No, I do not mean you need to read up on the story in advance of seeing the movie. What I mean is that you cannot accept everything presented as fact. Elements will be embellished, events will be rearranged, and some "facts" will be complete fabrications. Despite the truth being compelling, it does not always make for a watchable movie; it needs to be punched up.

On the surface, we have all seen this story before in a variety of guises. It is a good story, one that will affect you whether you want it to or not. It is skillfully told and as you are watching the cliches, the actors are busy getting by your defenses, making you care about the characters no matter how incomplete they may be.

thesoloist1The Soloist opens with Steve Lopez (Downey Jr.) riding his bike through the early morning of Los Angeles. He is riding like a man possessed, why? No idea. On top of that, he is blatantly going against the flow of traffic, flying through clusters of other cyclists heading in his direction. It all ends abruptly as Lopez is tossed over the handlebars where he becomes intimate with the pavement.

It is after his painful-looking spill and subsequent column on his stay at the local hospital that he finds a homeless man playing a one-string violin on the streets. Please allow the film to introduce Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. (Jamie Foxx). Lopez is taken with the man who is definitely a bit off, but he also seems intelligent, kind, and has a beautiful love of music. Lopez decides to write a story about the man, and so begins digging into his past.

While discovering the man who would become Ayers, Lopez finds something else, a kinship with this lost soul. It is the familiar story of the changed man: someone whose experience has made him cynical finds someone else whose life has taken a different path, no matter what curve balls life has thrown him. He has taken them and done the best he can, never succumbing to the cynicism around him.

thesoloist2The two men become close friends, although it is a strained, rocky relationship that is initially built on the shaky foundation of writer/subject. It is very reminiscent of Resurrecting the Champ, a similar true story that focused on a writer (Josh Hartnett) and a homeless boxing champion (Samuel L. Jackson). The two films have very similar beats and both succeed in spite of their familiarity. Why? It is all about the performances.

The Soloist is a decent film. It is involving, but the narrative drags for stretches, letting a modicum of boredom creep in. It is also a little on the incomplete side. We learn a lot about Ayers, his childhood, the events leading to his current state, everything. The problem is with Lopez. His half of the story is not nearly as well developed. Yes, he is the writer and he does plenty of that, but we need the information about what has made him the way he is. We get hints of a failed marriage, a troubled relationship with his son, but it never goes deep enough to make his change have much meaning.

Still, it is a touching tale and the performances alone are worth seeing it for. Robert Downey Jr. does a fine job of playing the journalist with responsibility issues. The man is a joy to watch. Jamie Foxx also does a fine job as the mentally troubled Ayers. He disappears into the role, bringing genuine emotion to his character.

One last thing that needs to be mentioned is that music is quite good. In addition to a number of Beethoven pieces, there is some original work from composer Dario Marianelli that definitely makes this a strong score.

Bottom line. Overall, this is a decent film; it is well made and features strong performances. Where it falters is in pacing and completeness of the story. It is worth seeing, but not one that you will become overly attached to.

Mildly Recommended.

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