Sometimes a movie is just a movie, and that's just fine. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a movie being a simple tale with interesting characters. However, a problem can quickly develop when the movie in question does everything it can to destroy its simple tale by trying to be more – by trying to paint a larger picture, talk about society in general, and to generally "raise awareness" about an issue. When that happens the tale sometimes disappears and all the audience is left with is two hours of unenjoyable preaching. Such is certainly the case with The Soloist, which is coming to Blu-ray this week.
The film, which is based on a true story, tells the tale of a writer for The Los Angeles Times, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), and a one-time Juilliard student who, due to mental illness, has found himself on the streets of Los Angeles, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx). Lopez, who writes human interest pieces, takes an interest in Ayers and begins to write column after column after column about the man. As often happens with human interest stories, people are touched and respond – Ayers is given a cello, the city of Los Angeles magically finds more money to help the homeless, and Lopez manages to raise his own stature.
Over time, the relationship between Lopez and Ayers grows and changes. Lopez learns that whether he wants to have done so or not, he's drastically influenced Ayers' life and that he, Lopez, needs to take responsibility for having done that, which is not always something Lopez is comfortable with.
Whether or not Lopez is a good guy in the film is highly debatable – he is certainly an incredibly flawed character. What is not debatable is that the relationship between the two men proves to be mutually beneficial. Though again, this issue is incredibly thorny – Ayers may get a place to live and a cello because of Lopez's article, but Lopez got a book deal and Hollywood movie made based on the book due to the relationship.
The questions about the motivations and desires of both characters are fascinating ones, but one the film never sees fit to fully explore. Instead, director Joe Wright, working from Susannah Grant's screenplay, opts to shy away from depth in an effort to broaden the story – which isn't necessarily beneficial. The viewer is given tantalizingly few clues as to Lopez's own dark past, and decades of Ayers' life are skipped as well.
What is put in to replace these stories? While laments over the plight of the newspaper industry come into it, there are simply too many overly preachy moments discussing the plight of those without homes in general. Viewers are even treated to the all too common scene in which the police brutalize the homeless and one man – in this case, Lopez – has his eyes opened to the problem.
Quite obviously, homelessness and poverty are serious issues, ones not to be dealt with lightly, and ones which everyone should be aware of. The Soloist could have better served the discussion however by actually devoting itself to the stories of its main characters as opposed to trying to draw the larger picture – the canvas the film uses simply isn't big enough to make anyone's story complete.
The Soloist features good performances by Downey Jr., Foxx, and the supporting cast (which includes Catherine Keener and Stephen Root) – Foxx is particularly good in his role – but there doesn't seem to be quite enough for either lead character to do. One gets the impression that Downey really wanted to explore Lopez's faults but was never really given the opportunity.
The Blu-ray release of the film features some great clarity and depth to the picture. Viewers will particularly be impressed by the detail and look of the scenes inside and outside the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The downside of the brilliant colors and sharp look are that when Downey Jr.'s eyebrows seem to change color from dark brown/black to terribly gray, the change is all too noticeable (it may only be a lighting issue, but it is an issue). As one would hope from a film which focuses itself so heavily on sound, the 5.1 channel Dolby TrueHD audio presentation here is quite good and really shines during any music-based moment. The audio is wonderfully clear and helps put the viewer into the mind of Ayers.
The release also features several behind-the-scenes featurettes, from the standard making-of stuff to abbreviated looks at the real Ayers and Lopez. There are also a director's commentary, deleted scenes, a piece on homelessness in Los Angeles, and a brief cartoon highlighting just how easy it is to become homeless.
The Soloist is one of those movies that has an interesting story to tell and actors who have – and utilize – the ability to make the audience believe but which still fails to be completely engrossing. In the case of this movie it's because it never delves deeply enough into the characters the audience is supposed to care about, choosing instead to draw a larger picture which the audience could have worked out all by themselves.