The Soloist

Director Joe Wright’s third feature is a significant departure from his two previous movies, Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. Those were both period dramas, adapted from beloved literary sources, which focused on the social and romantic complications of the British aristocracy. The Soloist, by contrast, is adapted from a series of articles from journalist Steve Lopez that appeared in the Los Angles Times in 2005 and is set on Los Angeles’ skid row; Wright’s customary bonnets and blushing belles replaced by crack-pipes and down-and-outs.

The film, like this year’s other journo-drama State of Play, opens with a loving montage of newspapers flying through a printing press before we are introduced to the LA Times star columnist Lopez, played by the always watchable Robert Downey Jr. Lopez is in need of a good story, anything to placate his peevish editor, and ex-wife, Mary (Catherine Keener). While out driving one day Lopez encounters a homeless busker Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), playing a virtuoso solo on a two-stringed violin.

Dressed in a suit of lights made from dozens of colourful rags, Nathaniel stammers out his story to the intrigued writer. He was once a student of the prestigious Juilliard School of Music before his undiagnosed schizophrenia made continuing his education impossible. He drifted away from New York and migrated to LA, “because you can sleep outside all year round”. Lopez has found his story, and writes it up as a column that is met with a wave of positive reaction from readers. More columns follow and a relationship develops between the two men. A reader’s donation of a cello brings Nathaniel and Lopez into contact with an LA homeless shelter, a place where the troubled man can get respite, if he chooses to take it, and the writer can find his subject when needs be.

Downey Jr played a journalist in David Fincher’s Zodiac and is again, wholly credible as an essentially honest, hard-working professional; his physical fluidity and clipped delivery going to underline his character as a keenly intelligent, doggedly inquisitive mind. The real life Lopez must be delighted with him. As Nathaniel, Foxx is a decent counterpoint to Downey Jr’s restraint, playing a man terrified by his own mind and reliant on music as a respite from the pain of his existence.

Director Wright doesn’t handle the transition to real-world, real-life drama all that well, seeming to prefer artful camera technique and delicate tableaux over the cut and thrust of a present-day drama. Despite Lopez being just a shiny halo short of sainthood and Ayers’ being a deeply sympathetic character, The Soloist fails to do justice to their shared story. This contemporary narrative has the germ of fascination but in Wright’s hands it emerges in lumpy spurts from a series of awkwardly conjoined sequences, alternately pretentious or bland, that settle unattractively into a globular mass of information. There are distracting sub-plots that arrive from nowhere, only to return there immediately, like Lopez's struggle with raccoons that have taken over his garden, and his somewhat less urine-soaked attempts to reconnect with his ex-wife.

Aside from a deftly presented multi-coloured light-show, that hints more at Nathaniel’s synesthesia than his schizophrenia, Wright strains to find any grandeur in his imagery and displays little understanding of his characters or the hard truths of homelessness. Wright’s attempt to depict schizophrenia from Nathaniel’s point of view collapses in a muddle of overlapping sound, crashing edits and indecipherable flashbacks.

For all its sensitivity to the horrors of mental illness, The Soloist ends up feeling a little unhinged itself; distracted, fidgety and self-absorbed. Wright’s regular cinematographer Seamus McGarvey fires off every cannon in his considerable arsenal - long tracking movements, swooping crane shots and delicate compositions - but the camera fails to bring grace to what is essentially a humdrum treatment. Far better is the thunderous score from another Wright regular Dario Marianelli, which amends and underlines a selection of Beethoven concertos to winning effect. Like the two central performances, it deserved a better film.

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