Sometimes you can pinpoint the exact moment in a film when you become aware of its artifice in a way that does not flatter the filmmaker. A moment when you are moved and you are impressed by the skills of all involved in putting that scene on film---but you're far too aware of all the pieces that went into the scene to be consumed with the art itself.
"The Soloist" is directed by Joe Wright ("Pride and Prejudice," "Atonement"), who seems to be the wrong man for the wrong job. In the scene in question, Robert Downey Jr.'s Steve Lopez, a columnist for the L.A. Times, has brought a cello to Jamie Foxx's Nathaniel Ayers, a former Julliard whiz now living on the streets. The colorfully costumed Ayers begins to play and creates soaring, beautiful sounds.
And then, thud. Wright's camera sweeps to the magnificent city above, following glorious birds as they soar into the smog-free sky, and the cello is overwhelmed by an entire orchestra, and I'm thinking: what the f--- happened to the reporter and the homeless guy and their story??? What happened to that cello solo, and where is all this movie music coming from?
"The Soloist" has a lot going for it. It is a film that sometimes displays great knowledge of and affection for journalism. It is a movie that has its heart in the right place as it addresses the issues of homelessness and mental illness, trying desperately not to turn schizophrenics into adorably eccentric bit players. It is based on the compelling and unforgettable series of columns by Steve Lopez, which were turned into a book and a "60 Minutes" feature. It stars Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., two of the most talented and charismatic actors of our time.
And yet it never achieves greatness, and it often wallows in predictability and cliche.
As played by Downey, Lopez is a deeply self-involved and cynical newspaper veteran who cares more about the next column than anything else, including his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) who just happens to be his editor, his unseen college-age son, and the fact that as he's toiling away on his next column, laid-off colleagues are walking out of the newsroom, carrying their belongings in a box while accompanied by security guards. (Don't expect Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times, to host any benefit screenings of this film.)
In real life, Lopez is happily married, and Ayers has two sisters, not one. Many other details have been rearranged or altered to make the movie more of, well, a movie. That's OK, it happens with virtually every film ever "inspired by real life events." The problem is that nearly every change here seems to be made in the service of melodrama.
Lopez and Ayers strike up something of a friendship, with Lopez prying Ayers for details of his life and Ayers alternating between cogent answers and extended riffs delivered by Foxx as if he's studied at the Robin Williams School of Hyperkinetic Monologues. (This is not a first-rate performance by Foxx. His line readings seem overly rehearsed, his rage too actorish. Even his homeless-guy outfits seem too thought-out.) Lopez' columns turns Ayers into something of a star, even prompting the mayor of Los Angeles to pledge a $50 million stimulus package targeted at cleaning up Skid Row.
Meanwhile, we get flashbacks tells us Nathaniel's story. We see him as a gifted child and as a talented but increasingly stressed-out student at Jullliard. And then Nathaniel starts hearing voices and he grows increasingly paranoid, eventually winding up on the streets of Los Angeles, where Lopez discovers him, helps him, befriends him, exploits him.
There is a lot of great music in "The Soloist," thanks to this guy named Beethoven and also a fellow named Bach. Downey, incapable of delivering a poor performance, is always interesting here, though it feels as if he's played this kind of character before. (He has, in "Zodiac," to name just one example.) Foxx tries hard, but we don't really get to know Nathaniel or get any insight as to why a seemingly normal and cheerful adolescent spiraled into schizophrenia. And for some reason, Wright and screenwriter Susannah Grant give us not one but two separate scenes in which the payoff is Lopez getting drenched with urine. (Once it's his own. The second time it's coyote urine. Don't ask.) These forced attempts at comic relief are terribly unfunny and wildly out of place in this film.
"The Soloist" doesn't try to sugarcoat Nathaniel's problems or offer too much of a fairy tale ending. It is a well-made film, directed by a man who clearly cares about his characters and the plight of the homeless. But this is the kind of movie where Neil Diamond is used as a punch line----and then in the next scene a character is in a bar drinking, and Neil Diamond is playing in the background, for no reason other than for us to say, "Hey that's a Neil Diamond song."
Which means we're once again too aware of the moviemaker to get swept away by the movie.