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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

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.
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