British director Joe Wright's third film is a significant departure from his two previous movies, 2005's "Pride and Prejudice" and 2007's "Atonement." Those were both period dramas based in Britain and centered on romantic complications. "The Soloist" is a politically timely American story taken straight from the recent pages of "The Los Angeles Times." Wright has been criticized in the past for favoring showy technique over satisfying drama. Here, he seems to have grasped onto something he has little understanding of, showing no sense of consistent technique, which is alternately pretentious and bland, while letting his story unfold without great care or interest.
The film was adapted from the book by "Los Angeles Times" reporter Steve Lopez, wherein he chronicles his meeting and unusual relationship with Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless schizophrenic who at one time was a student at Juilliard with a bright future as a cellist. As played by Robert Downey Jr., Lopez is in desperate need of a good story and weary of the trite leads he is given by his editor/ex-wife (Catherine Keener). While following one of these leads, he comes upon Ayers (Jamie Foxx) expertly playing the violin in the park. After a brief conversation, he knows that the situation is pregnant with opportunity, and he sets to work finding out all that he can about the musician. His first article proves a success with readers, with one sympathetic old lady even donating her own cello to Ayers to play in the streets.
No longer content to simply write about this extraordinary person, Lopez feels he may be able to do him some good by introducing him to a professional cellist and perhaps getting him a job in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Ayers is resistant, however, preferring to play in the freedom and isolation of the streets and the company of the birds. He eventually does come to trust Lopez, going so far as to consider him his "god," and reluctantly agrees to try living in an apartment and auditioning, even as his schizophrenic insecurities increase. At the same time, Lopez faces criticism from his editor, who accuses him of exploiting Ayers for personal gain, something that Lopez has a hard time defending himself against.
This film, like the book and articles that inspired it, has an inherent moral issue at its center that immediately grabs us. We root for these characters and the humanitarian situation they are caught up in. What the film does not give us is an interesting narrative or visual resonance to contain this situation. In other words, it offers nothing that probably can't be attained from Lopez's book or newspaper articles. Despite Lopez's commendable actions and Ayers' sympathetic story, we are never fully immersed in their lives. There is an odd detachment throughout, and we are left constantly observing the characters rather than truly identifying with them. The director's attempts to let us experience the world through Ayers' perception—including the use of overlapping voiceovers to represent aural hallucinations, a "Fantasia"-like sequence of abstract colors and lights during an orchestral performance, and a crane shot of doves flying through the city while he plays his cello—do little to help our understanding of his illness or his passion for music. Rather, they come off more as clumsy technical exercises in an otherwise blandly straightforward movie.
Foxx and Downey are excellent throughout, although Susannah Grant's screenplay gives them little to do except move through the motions. Foxx especially maintains a restrained and respectful composure in a role that one could easily see a lesser actor taking to absurd heights of overacting. These are dedicated actors, but their performances are the only truly sincere aspects of this film, which at times seems intent on making a political statement out of the entire affair and at other times appears to forget about such lofty ambitions. When Keener's Mary Weston suggests that Lopez may be exploiting Ayers, it is tempting to wonder how the filmmakers would react to the same accusation, as their attention is focused primarily on the generic appeal of the story. In the DVD special features, Joe Wright reveals that his one condition for making the film was that he be able to film in an actual community of homeless people. That the movie ends on a clichéd and almost carnivalesque sequence of said homeless people dancing in slow-motion has alternative implications.
Paramount Home Entertainment has brought "The Soloist" to DVD in a very good anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. The image is crisp with good color saturation and solid black levels. No noticeable flaws were detected, and I'm sure the Blu-ray looks even better.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is equally good, with clear vocals, fine ambience, and smooth rendering of the frequent music. Alternate French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are available, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The first supplemental feature is an audio commentary by director Joe Wright. He provides the expected wealth of information about the production. He is very low-key and at times a bit dull, sometimes pointing out the obvious. In other words, it's pretty typical for a director's commentary.
"An Unlikely Friendship: Making The Soloist" is a 20-minute featurette with interviews with cast and crew. Plenty of behind-the-scenes footage is shown throughout as the interviewees discuss their awe of Lopez and Ayers' story. This is an average promo piece.
The five-minute "Kindness, Courtesy and Respect: Mr. Ayers + Mr. Lopez" gives us a glimpse of the real men who inspired the film. They are most interesting, and it is disappointing that they are not given more camera time.
"One Size Does Not Fit All: Addressing Homelessness in Los Angeles" is a 10-minute piece on the non-profit organizations that are doing their best to help the massive amount of homeless people in L.A. Similarly, "Beth's Story" is a two-minute animated promo for TakePart.com, a website dedicated to bringing various causes to the public's attention.
Finally, five deleted scenes round out the disc. None of these are greatly compelling, and it is easy to see why they were ultimately left out.
The true story of Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers is undeniably inspiring and important. However, the film is lacking in emotion and dramatic power. If you are really interested in this story, you are probably better off just reading Lopez's book.