Monday, 18 January 2016

The Soloist (2009)

You have to hand it to Joe Wright. Even when he's helming a flop, he still brings something of interest to it that rescues it from the drubbing it probably truly deserves. Look at Anna Karenina, whose overly stylised meta tone scuppered the cast and exquisite visuals on displays. The Soloist is certainly better, but it failed to find an agreeable audience at the box office.

The break-out Hollywood movie is always a tricky prospect for an English director, especially one who has carved a name for himself out of period drama. But Wright isn't just corsets and britches, as he would go on to show us with a much greater success Hanna, and he often cites Alan Clarke as an inspiration - so it should come as no surprise that he tried his hand at a social realist piece. It's just a shame he chose Hollywood to try it out in.

Based on a true story, albeit ramped up to 11, The Soloist stars Robert Downey Jr as Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez who, despairing of the cynical behaviour of his newspaper, he takes to the streets for a human interest story he can write on his own terms and happens to hear Beethoven played on a two-string violin. His heart is touched by the music performed by Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) a schizophrenic vagrant and former child prodigy. Sensing a story, Lopez sets out to find out why Ayers dropped out of New York's illustrious Juilliard School some 30 years earlier to end up on the streets of LA and how he can help him gain his potential once more. But when does a story and an act of kindness towards someone in need become patronising exploitation? And can Lopez highlight the conditions of the city's Skid Row to his readership and make a difference where it counts for them in city hall?

The film is at its best in the scenes which feature the Lamp project; a charitable organisation set up to aid the mentally ill homeless community of LA. Commendably and with great Clarke-like intentions, Wright employed 500 genuine Skid Row 'residents' who regularly use Lamp as extras and their lives and experiences are palpable upon the screen with just a look. You really feel Wright's passion in addressing this issue here and it hints at a much greater film.

But The Soloist isn't a documentary about these genuine homeless cases, they're just vivid and invaluable background and unfortunately Wright loses sight of the story in the foreground too often for the film to be truly satisfying. Downey Jr and Foxx are of course reliable, good actors but they're A-list and glaringly, obviously so in the very real situations Wright captures. It detracts from the message of the piece overall, especially when you realise you've seen the former do this kind of role a thousand times before and that the latter seems to have spent his time preparing for Ayers by watching Geoffrey Rush in Shine around a thousand times. Where it falls down is that, ultimately, you just don't feel the bond the two characters are supposed to have and that's as much a script issue as it is a performance one. This isn't Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy in Stuart: A Life Backwards and, without that convincing friendship, the central story simply falls away, leaving us with Wright's inventive imagery and sound design as our main source of entertainment.

Close, but no cigar. At this stage in his career, off the back of Atonement, the more interesting move Wright could have made would have been something of a similar model as this, but done extremely low budget and shot on the streets of London. I'd have much preferred that rather than see him chase the big bucks in the US. It would't have been what the studios wanted, but it would have flexed his muscles far more satisfactorily. He should have gone the full Clarkey basically.

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