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Review: The Soloist (2009)

The Soloist (2009)

Directed by: Joe Wright

Premise: The true story of the relationship between Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) and homeless musical prodigy Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx).

What Works: The Soloist is very unique film in some very subtle ways. The film takes on the topics of mental illness and homelessness and often in stories like these there is a tendency to exploit the character and their situation for drama, laughs, or sentimentality. Rather than dealing with the real complexity of the situation or the nuances of characters, the disabled and diseased are often turned into overly simplistic figures who act out the cultural myths of perseverance and the virtue of the underdog. Also in these stories, those who help the disadvantaged give the audience some vicarious satisfaction by first confronting us with a social problem but then easing our guilt and shared responsibility by showing us that someone cares and is taking care of the problem. The Soloist avoids both of these missteps and in the process ends up being more than a little subversive. The film refuses to simplify Ayers’ situation and uses cinema to give a sense of what schizophrenia is like and communicate the world through his eyes. This avoids the condescending attitude that often blames the victims. At the same time, the story makes a point of holding Lopez accountable for the way he inserted himself into Ayers’ life. There is an ethical dilemma on display in this film that is nicely paralleled as Lopez’s columns for the Times draw attention to Ayers and the plight of the homeless, but in the short term this attention is used by city hall for political gain and by Ayers for personal gain, while the social problem is ultimately left unaddressed. Aside from the strong thematic content, The Soloist features a pair of terrific performances by Foxx and by Downey and the editing of the film, especially in its use of sound, is very effective.

What Doesn’t: Some viewers may have trouble with The Soloist because it violates the key expectations mainstream audiences will have for this kind of story. Although this is to the film’s credit, those who want that prefabricated, feel -good underdog story may not find it here.

Bottom Line: The Soloist is an unexpectedly satisfying film to watch. It is a smart film that takes new routes on a familiar storyline and comes up with a compelling and even challenging piece of work.

Episode: #237 (May 3, 2009)