UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds
Courtesy of Dreamworks

The Soloist

New film exposes the underbelly of Los Angeles homeless life but gets carried away with its sentimental message

By Drew Halfnight

The Soloist
Directed by Joe Wright, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx
(DreamWorks)


The Soloist, a predictable and preachy drama by Atonement director Joe Wright, flattens under the many weighty issues it attempts to address, including schizophrenia, homelessness and racism.

Also about the redemptive power of both daily newspaper journalism and music, the film begins amid the infernal rattle of printing presses and ends with the soaring strains of a Beethoven symphony. In between is the story of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) and homeless violinist Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), whom Lopez decides to feature in a series of columns after discovering him playing sweetly on a two-stringed violin in a public square.

The two form a rough friendship based on mutual desperation: Lopez, a tired, has-been reporter needs compelling material for his columns; Ayers, a former cello wunderkind whose delusional episodes drove him out of Juilliard and onto the streets, craves the opportunity to make music as he used to.

Foxx and Downey Jr. work mightily to make this movie count, but alas, they are undermined by a director carried away with his sentimental message. Add this movie to the pile that feature a white protagonist being rescued from damnation by a “magical black man,” to use a term favoured by film critics.

The characters are overdone. Lopez is not just a beat reporter: he is a hard-boiled, cigarette-smoking, fedora-wearing beat reporter who drives a beat-up Saab. He also keeps spilling urine on himself (three times!) in a series of comic asides intended to heighten his aura of calamity. Ayers, meanwhile, is not just a homeless schizophrenic guy in a shabby outfit. He’s an over-the-top homeless schizophrenic guy who appears first in reflective jacket, yellow visor and purple lei, then a sparkly Uncle Sam hat and white face-paint, later a Barney the Dinosaur outfit, then a balaclava and finally a beekeeper’s veil.

While ambitious in its attempt to expose the underbelly of Los Angeles homeless life, the film is too busy pushing its self-serious message to allow the characters to breathe and come alive. Many emotional outbursts and impassioned exchanges haven’t been earned, and many scenes depicting extreme poverty do not resonate. A few shallow, extraneous characters come and go, most notably a creepy Christian fanatic and cello teacher whose only purpose appears to be to provoke Ayers into a rage so that Lopez can calm him.

The Soloist redeems itself here and there with moments of some beauty. When Wright sends his camera flying high over the muddle of freeways outside Los Angeles, for example, and sets the scene to the monotonous chatter of the newsroom or to an ethereal symphony, the feeling is raw and real. But these moments are rare, and no match for the ponderous clichés that hobble the film.

Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image

Editorials

David Wilson%

Observations

by David Wilson

A perfect send-off

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: My Year of Living Spiritually

by Observer Staff

Anne Bokma left the Dutch Reformed Church as a young adult and eventually became a member of the United Church and then the Unitarian Universalists. Having long explored the "spiritual but not religious" demographic as a writer, she decided to immerse herself in practices — like hiring a soul coach, secular choir-singing and forest bathing — for 12 months to find both enlightenment and entertainment.

Promotional Image

Society

November 2017

Trump country

by David Macfarlane

A northern Alabama county voted almost unanimously for Donald Trump in 2016. One year later, the writer, together with photographer Nigel Dickson, travels there to try to understand why.

Faith

November 2017

Involuntary pilgrim

by David Giuliano

The return of a tumour sets David Giuliano on a path he calls his ‘Camino de Cancer’

Faith

October 2017

A tale of two cancers

by Catherine Gordon

One year after the writer discovered she had breast cancer, her sister in California received the same diagnosis. They both recovered, but their experiences were worlds apart.

Society

November 2017

Trump country

by David Macfarlane

A northern Alabama county voted almost unanimously for Donald Trump in 2016. One year later, the writer, together with photographer Nigel Dickson, travels there to try to understand why.

Faith

November 2017

Involuntary pilgrim

by David Giuliano

The return of a tumour sets David Giuliano on a path he calls his ‘Camino de Cancer’

Faith

November 2017

Grey matter

by Trisha Elliott

Is consciousness just a function of the brain — or something more?

Promotional Image