The Soloist: Joe Wright

30Apr09

by The Great White Gypsy

soloist

People who could’ve directed The Soloist better than Joe Wright:

Ron Howard

Any 2nd year NYU film student

A French tourist with a camcorder

A retarded monkey

The Soloist is the story of Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times who is struggling for new material.  After a rough bicycling accident, he runs across a homeless man playing a violin with only two strings.  After some digging, he discovers that this mentally ill vagabond is Nathaniel Ayers, an amazingly talented Julliard dropout.  Lopez begins writing about the down-and-out musician, and the two strike up an unusual friendship.  This is actually a true story, and is based on the book by Steve Lopez.

The story itself is wonderful.  The characters are well developed, the dialogue is entertaining and emotional, and the musical aspect is at times moving.  The Soloist would have made a great documentary, but this film version was, on almost every level, ill conceived.  Susannah Grant (screenwriter) was an interesting choice, as her previous credits include Catch and Release, Erin Brockovich, and Ever After.  She is the epitome of a chick flick writer, and The Soloist is not a chick flick.  This is probably why Lopez’s relationship with his ex-wife and son are mentioned numerous times, but never flushed out or discussed in detail, which actually detracts from the audience’s emotional attachment to Robert Downey Jr.

Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) is just a pretentious, unimaginative director who always wants to cram every item on his Oscar checklist into his films.  This one is no different.  His long, slow moving camera shots panning the city, moving with characters in and out of rooms, doesn’t fit with this kind of story (I wasn’t a fan of it in Atonement either, but whatever).  This story is about people, about personal demons and inner talent.  We need intimate, we need direct, we need to feel for these people.  What we do not need is a laser light show of colors while listening to a symphony, or grainy homemade footage of interviews and rehearsals.

There are also many flashbacks in the film to when Nathaniel Ayers was growing up.  But we are never told they are flashbacks, we have to figure that out for ourselves, and there really aren’t very many overt clues to this.  No year flashes up on screen, no location, they aren’t even transitioned by a specific sound or shot.  As Ayers gets older, the flashbacks get more confusing.

This isn’t just Joe Wright, either.  Even with only three films under his belt, he has already amassed a group of haughty socialites willing to do his arrogant bidding.  Composer Dario Marianelli, Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, Editor Paul Tothill, and Production Designer Sarah Greenwood have all collaborated with Wright on all three of his films, none of them having a particularly impressive or extensive resume overall.  It’s like Wright put out an ad for filmmakers whose only goal in cinema was to win an Academy Award, not to actually make films.

Though it was slightly hampered by misguided directing and an erratic screenplay, the acting in The Soloist is very well done.  Robert Downey Jr. has had better roles, but he fit the character very well, from his clothes to his attitude.  Jamie Foxx has played musicians before and, though he’s not the best one himself, does it well.  This role was especially difficult because of Ayers’ schizophrenia.  Foxx pulled it off  though.  Maybe not Golden Globe caliber, but it was solid.  And, as always, Catherine Keener was a great addition to the cast as Lopez’s boss and ex-wife.  She supplies some comic relief and emotional support in some of Downey’s best scenes.  However, as I said, this relationship is not expanded on as much as it should have been.

Even knowing who directed this film, I had been looking forward to it since the first preview I saw.  When it kept getting pushed back, my expectations grew slightly.  That may account for how disappointed I was, but the three people with me didn’t feel any differently: This film is nowhere near as good as it could have been.

Final Grade: C-



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