Following on from his success with second world war movie Atonement, director Joe Wright has now taken a turn to Hollywood for his follow-up picture. Based on a true story, The Soloist sees Los Angeles journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr) discover a virtuoso classical musician in homeless man Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), and shows his attempts to help him back to a normal life, while still getting the story he needs from his subject.
Downey Jr gives his character the verbal dexterity that has become his stock in trade (see Iron Man), and on entering a messy newsroom of boxes and mounds of paper, we witness an inexplicable rapid-fire conversation with a colleague, presumably to tell the audience that they are witnessing what passes for a rough and ready editorial environment (series five of The Wire gives a more genuine depiction of newspaper life than we see here). We also find that his editor is also his ex-wife, who seems to have left him to his house some time ago, a place again cluttered with boxes and papers that hint to a devil-may-care bachelor lifestyle.
It’s unclear if the state of Lopez’s house is intended to reflect the homelessness of Ayers, but if the characters are intended to mirror each other, it may explain Foxx’s rather overcooked performance of mannerisms, possibly to counter Downey Jr’s own. The problem is that Foxx appears as an actor putting on a performance, rather than the character he would be portraying. It contrasts greatly with his nuanced turn as Ray Charles in the biopic, Ray. That said, Foxx is startlingly physical during a scene in which Nathanial explodes when he believes Lopez has tried to get the better of him.
Lopez represents a reluctant good Samaritan, in that he seems to want to fix Nathaniel and be on his way to the next story, but inevitably has his eyes opened to the world of chaos and violence on the streets. In one scene he wanders through a back-street at night, the police forcibly removing the homeless in a what resembles a small riot. It passes for Lopez’s Damascene conversion to the plight of those on the streets, but as redemption it feels a little hollow. His subsequent high-profile appearance in a scene with LA’s media and councilmen as they pledge to resolve the issue seems unnatural, and could have been inferred by other, less showy means.
The most rousing performance from the movie comes from Ludwig van Beethoven, who Nathaniel has been in thrall to since a teenager. There is a stunning synaesthesia section where we see inside Nathaniel’s mind during a concert rehearsal. Broad streaks of colour representing brass, strings and woodwind play across a black screen as we hear Beethoven’s Symphony No.3, Eroica. It’s highly reminiscent of Disney’s Fantasia, which is all the more apt considering the concert location is at Frank Gehry’s Disney concert hall.
Seamus McGarvey BSC handles some fine cinematography, with striking low-light photography in flashback sequences, and the simple but stimulating synaesthesia sequence. Credit must also go to the sound recordist for handling the scenes in noisy highway underpasses.
The Soloist is entertaining enough, but unsubtle narrative signposting and uneven performances inevitably make the film a little clunky and clichéd.