You'd be hard-pressed to come up with a major studio picture as badly handled by its distributors as Joe Wright's The Soloist; one wonders if someone at Paramount had an axe to grind, or perhaps a bet to win. The film was originally slated for release in November of 2008--prime Oscar territory, the landing strip for intelligent, prestige projects such as this one. Then they inexplicably yanked it from the fall schedule and dumped it, unceremoniously, into the barren soil of late April. For both releases, the film was given an ad campaign that made it appear like yet another tale of a yuppie shaken from his comfort zone by a gifted but troubled genius (in fact, its particular construct--reporter meets once-great homeless guy--was in theaters a scant year earlier, under the title Resurrecting The Champ). So it wasn't a surprise when it didn't do any business--everyone assumed they'd already seen it.
But The Soloist isn't nearly that cut-and-dried; in fact, it's a challenging, thoughtful, thrillingly well-acted story with more complexity and darkness than you might expect. It's based on the true story of Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), a Los Angeles Times columnist who discovers a homeless musician named Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) playing a two-stringed violin in the park. When Ayers mentions that he attended Julliard, Lopez is intrigued; he ends up writing a column about Ayers, whose schizophrenia led him to drop out of Julliard (and society). That article turns into a series of pieces about Los Angeles' homeless population, and the two men begin a difficult, tentative friendship.
The film's first and perhaps most valuable asset is Robert Downey Jr., whose natural comic timing and inability to sound a false note help keep the story entertaining and grounded. He's also well-served by the intelligent screenplay (by Susannah Grant, who did similar cliché-dodging duty on Erin Brockovich), which creates a believable newsroom of crass, overlapping witticisms--my only serious complaint, in fact, is that they bring in terrific character actors like Rachael Harris and Steven Root as his colleagues and then don't use them enough.
Director Wright (Atonement) is clearly a detail-oriented director, and the film's authenticity is admirable; I wasn't surprised to read that many of the people in the shelter sequences are, in fact, real homeless people. His shots sometimes call undue attention to themselves, but that's a minor complaint, and his sure hand with his actors does the movie great favors--the always-reliable Catherine Keener does a nicely nuanced turn, and Nelsan Ellis (familiar as "Layfayette" on True Blood) plays some difficult notes easily in his small role.
But this is, in many ways, a two-man show, and these fine actors are evenly matched. Downey has the less showy character, but he absolutely nails it; it's a subtle piece of work, but the way it culminates in his sad confession that he's "done trying" is close to astonishing. Foxx could have very well played his role as little more than a collection of tics, but he burrows deeper than that; given the scope of the character's full history to play, he brings him to clear, tough life, and Wright inventively uses his entire filmmaking toolbox to put us inside Ayers' head.
Grant's script sounds a couple of false notes--the tripled-up timing of Lopez walking into a banquet mere moments before he receives an award for his work on the Ayers story while simultaneously on the phone with a wigging-out Ayers is a wee bit too contrived, and making Keener both Lopez's ex-wife and his editor feels like a stretch (and come to find out, it is; Lopez was happily married throughout the entirety of the Ayers story). But considering how broadly and melodramatically this story could have been written, the screenplay is a model of efficiency and tastefulness. And there are scenes of tremendous power--particularly a moment towards the end that is so moving, it hits you like a sucker punch.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Paramount's AVC-encoded 2.39:1 transfer is astonishing in its clarity; this is a beautifully shot motion picture, and the transfer more than stands up to the challenges presented by Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (his collaborator on Atonement). Note how well the image handles the limited light in a scene with young Nathaniel playing by firelight--blacks are rich and inky, with no crushing. Color temperatures are warm and natural, while details are sharp and lines are clean; grain is subtle and barely noticed. Overall, a top-notch video presentation.
The disc's English 5.1 Dolby True HD mix is just as strong; the picture has a rich, dynamic sound design, from the crisp, classical source and score music to the energetic environments of the L.A. streets, Lopez's newsroom, and the homeless shelter. What's more, the oscillating voices in Ayers' head are brought to intense life, coming at the viewer from all directions. Dialogue is clean, audible, and well-modulated throughout.
The disc also offers up French and Spanish 5.1 tracks, as well as English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Bonus features are fairly plentiful and all worth a look. Good-humored director Joe Wright contributes an Audio Commentary track, which is engaging and informative, if a bit too academic in spots. Next up is "An Unlikely Friendship: Making The Soloist" (19:37), a sturdier-than-usual making-of featurette, beginning with the film's producers reading one of Lopez's columns and walking through the process of bringing the story to the screen. Lopez and Ayers add their two cents, as do screenwriter Grant, director Wright, and actors Foxx and Downey, among others. I'm not sure why this featurette is so much better than the EPK-style fluff pieces that adorn so many discs; it's just somehow quieter and more direct, with no music or narration, letting the actors and filmmakers talk about the film in stretches longer than the normal one-sentence soundbites.
The two men who inspired the film also pop up in "Kindness, Courtesy, and Respect: Mr. Ayers + Mr. Lopez" (4:48), centered on a two-man interview where they talk about their history and friendship (only one complaint: part of the interview is seen in both this and the previous featurette). "One Size Does Not Fit All: Addressing Homelessness is Los Angeles" (9:45) examines the serious issues of the homelessness problem in L.A., with commentary by the filmmakers, advisors, and advocates. "Julliard: The Education of Nathaniel Ayers" (4:08) is primarily an interview with producer Gary Foster about Ayers' musical background, including a great story about Ayers and Yo-Yo Ma, a Julliard classmate. "Beth's Story" (2:02) is a short cartoon about homelessness--it's simple but quite effective. Next up are five interesting if understandably expendable Deleted Scenes (9:49 total), while the flavorless Theatrical Trailer (2:33) finishes out the extras.
The funny thing about The Soloist is that although the broad strokes seem familiar, once you're in the middle of this story, you're not sure exactly where it's going. There's enormous complexity to it; Ayers isn't rain man, and you can't just trot him out to do his tricks and put him back in his box. More than most pictures of its kind, The Soloist deals in the messiness and loose ends of real life, and it's in that emotional chaos that this film finds its greatness.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.