In film, the biopic genre is like a double-edged sword. If you attempt to tell the tale of a widely recognized public figure, you have to make a rehashed story captivating nonetheless. On the other hand, if you tackle a virtual nobody, you face the challenge of having audiences connect with this anonymity. The producers of “The Soloist” took the latter path and created an uneven narrative that merely nudges audiences’ hearts rather than tugging.
Based on a series of articles written by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr., “Tropic Thunder”), the film tells the true story of Lopez’s chance encounter with Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx, “The Kingdom”), a homeless musical prodigy who developed schizophrenia during his time at Juilliard, and the unlikely friendship that formed between these two men.
Although the film has a heartrending premise, British director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) is unable to seal the deal. While Wright clearly has a poignant message he is trying to convey through Ayers’s story — it is even directly stated in the movie’s closing tagline — his means of getting there are disjointed. The film has no real sense of direction, jumping haphazardly from one scene to the next as if the audience was simply catching random pieces from Lopez’s columns while pouring over microfilm at the library. This lack of focus keeps audiences disconnected from this tragic narrative.
The screenplay, written by Oscar-nominated Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”), also suffers a few pitfalls. Although Grant beautifully develops Ayers’s backstory through a series of flashbacks, the heart of the movie is the emerging bond between Ayers and Lopez, and Grant fails to add much depth to this relationship, effectively lowering the film’s dramatic pulse a few beats. Specifically, she leaves the audience in the dark in regards to Lopez’s past, eliminating the context behind why Lopez feels so drawn to helping Ayers in the first place.
What is truly aggravating, though, is Wright’s absurd infatuation with adding artistic lulls. Whether Ayers or the entire Los Angeles Philharmonic is playing, Wright apparently does not think music alone will stir the audience’s senses. Instead, he feels the need to focus on a senseless pigeon flight through downtown Los Angeles during these dramatic performances. Even worse is when Wright fills the entire screen with a remarkably lengthy lightshow that can best be described as what you experience when using the iTunes Visualizer function on your computer.
Fortunately, an all-around stellar cast acts as this film’s saving grace. Since soaring back into moviegoers’ hearts last summer with “Iron Man,” Downey Jr. has been on a hot streak, first with his Oscar-nominated supporting role in “Tropic Thunder” and now with a noteworthy leading performance in this dramatic film. Full of wit, cynicism and hope, Downey Jr. not only has tremendous chemistry with Foxx but also has the force to drive a scene on his own as a burned-out journalist desperately trying to rediscover what is important in life — a character we all can relate to.
Always willing to go above and beyond normal expectations to give the most authentic performance possible — he glued his eyes shut for his Academy Award-winning role in “Ray” — Foxx chiseled his teeth to change their shape and intensively studied stringed instruments before taking on the role of Ayers. Foxx’s dedication shows as he gives an extraordinarily genuine performance as both a homeless man driven by his passion for music and a schizophrenic.
In addition, Catherine Keener (“Synecdoche, New York”), who time and time again solidifies her status as one of the premier supporting ladies in the business, utilizes what little screen time she has as Lopez’s ex-wife and co-worker to add a little extra sparkle to the silver screen.
In the end, “The Soloist” is not worth the wait audiences had to endure when producers moved the release date back from last November. Despite boasting all-star performances by Downey Jr. and Foxx, the film as a whole features only glimpses of the magic that lies in the inspiring true story of Nathaniel Ayers and the heartrending words of Lopez’s columns that tell of finding friendship in unlikely places and learning about what is important in life in the process.
2 1/2 stars out of 5.