by Jef Burnham
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The Soloist, from director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice), is a very troubled picture. The trouble with it is a severe and cumbersome lack of focus pervading every portion of the film. The best I can say for it is that it has a stellar cast, who deliver some solid performances. But aside from these performances, The Soloist is a failure.
The film is about LA Times reporter, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), who, in search of a story, befriends Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a schizophrenic homeless man and Julliard drop-out who plays a two-stringed violin on the streets. We also get some scattered flashbacks into Ayers’ musical and psychologically troubled past along the way.
The film is incredibly heavy-handed and preachy, although the subject of the sermon reverses from scene to scene. In one scene, we are being lectured about the wonders of the homeless community, who are a misunderstood credit to humanity and should be helped. The next scene, we are shown the homeless as a veritable freak show, who are no more than murderous thieves beyond redemption. On one hand, the film is melodramatic, and on the other, there is a running gag about coyote urine and raccoons in reporter Lopez’s yard, which never amounts to anything. Ultimately, the film never seems to get around to saying anything, and the themes are tossed aside before fruition.
At times, The Soloist can be almost beautiful. For instance, there are scenes in which the characters become overwhelmed by the power of music and the expressions of Downey and Foxx say everything about music—from its superficial beauty to its inherent restorative graces. However, these moments are quickly dashed by the filmmakers’ attempts to reiterate these ideas with overused, contrived imagery. When Lopez hears Ayers playing cello in a tunnel, we see pigeons take flight and soar over Los Angeles, rising and falling with the music. When Ayers hears an orchestra playing Beethoven, we are given a light show, all the colors of the rainbow. This is imagery that has been used dozens of times before, and says virtually nothing about the characters except, perhaps, that their view of music is no more transcendent than the most obvious of cinematic techniques—hardly what Wright was trying to say, I’m sure.
Let’s look at how one of the master directors constructed a similar scene. In Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, there is a scene where Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman play mother and daughter pianists who play the same song for one another. While on is playing, Bergman shows only the face of the other listening in one continuous shot. Simply utilizing the expressions of his actors and the sound of the music, Bergman is able to demonstrate the complexities of their relationship without dialogue. By allowing the actors to do what they’re being paid for, Wright certainly could have achieved similar depth in regards to the characters’ relationship to music itself.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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