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The Soloist

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The Soloist
Released on Friday, Sep 25 2009

Director: Joe Wright (interview)
Screenwriters: Susannah Grant
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander
Running Time: 116 mins
Certificate: 12A

Jamie Foxx plays second fiddle to Robert Downey Jr in real-life drama The Soloist even though his is the title role. Nathaniel Anthony Ayers is a talented musician, classically trained at the prestigious Julliard School in New York, who winds up homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. It's an intriguing story of misfortune, which is why he is befriended by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez (upon whose articles the film is based), but the alienation of Ayers always feels less important than Lopez's own inability to connect with people, and that includes Ayers who remains a mystery.

Downey Jr does an admirable job playing a man whose motivations are ambiguous at best and, at worst, self-serving. It's that cynical edge that makes him stop and listen to Ayers playing a violin (with only two strings) beneath a statue of Beethoven. The sight of him in his shabby, brightly-coloured clothes is discordant with the fine music and, as they get talking, it becomes obvious that Ayers is mentally unwell. He is, however, eloquent in his ramblings and Foxx lends an air of dignity to the man whether he's playing his violin or carefully dusting the ground he sleeps on. Lopez wastes no time digging into his background, tracking down his sister (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and touching the hearts of his readers with a week-by-week portrait.

Inevitably, friendship blossoms, but Lopez still takes more than he gives. His editor and ex-wife Mary Weston (Catherine Keener) is a character invented out of thin air to address that issue. She berates Lopez for the way he takes Ayers for granted, though, of course, she feels the hardest done by. It's an obvious ploy to create a connection between the writer and his subject (both solo acts) and a weak thread to pull the film together. Lopez scrabbles to find some other meaning in the madness, but it's a lost cause. Ayers's battle with schizophrenia is reduced to montage and British director Joe Wright (Atonement) even dabbles with visual effects to try to get deeper into Ayers's mind. Sadly, what looks like an abstract screensaver pulsing to the beat of an orchestra is just a colourful plaster to cover the gaps in knowledge.

Later in the story, Lopez becomes more concerned with getting Ayers off the street and uses a cello like a carrot to lure him inside. As a result, he seems to become more socially aware and even challenges the staff at a local shelter where psychiatric care is not afforded to the people who need it. Still, Lopez appears content to skirt the issue for a few column inches (and a press award) rather than use his influence in a more productive way. This fumbling shallowness pervades the film despite the best efforts of a talented cast and crew (including Erin Brockovich scribe Susannah Grant). Thanks to them, The Soloist isn't the cringe-worthy Rain Man rip-off it might have been, but that's the only surprise this film has to offer. If it were a piece of music, it would be the kind you hear in a lift when you're stuck between floors...


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