Neither rarefied art film nor widely accessible inspirational drama, “The Soloist” falls between the cracks both creatively and commercially. Based on the real case of a newspaperman finding a former musical prodigy homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, Brit director Joe Wright’s first American feature has moments of power and imagination, but the overworked style and heavy socially conscious bent exude an off-putting sense of self-importance, making for a picture that’s more of a chore than a pleasure to sit through. Delayed from an original late 2008 release to an April 24 opening, this DreamWorks/Universal co-production, released Stateside by Paramount, will ride a short time on the names of co-stars Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., but is an unlikely bet to stir up significant B.O.
Charismatic and dynamic as they’ve been on any number of previous occasions, both Foxx and Downey seem to labor here as they grapple with roles viewers will find difficulty warming to. Downey, in particular, fails to find either outer charm or inner soul in Steve Lopez, the real-life Los Angeles Times columnist whose book (and prior columns) served as the basis for Susannah Grant’s ambitious but short-falling screenplay. Ever distracted and preoccupied over his next deadline, the screen version of Lopez provides little in the way of a portal through which to view the outside world, and what’s going on in his mind remains a mystery across two hours; crucially, given the melodious bombardment to come, we don’t even know what he thinks of classical music.
Always choosing to over-elaborate rather than to simplify, the pic gratuitously opens on Lopez getting half his face grated by concrete in a bicycle accident, the better that he should look like a street guy himself when he encounters Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx) near the Times offices downtown. A motormouthed fellow in funny clothes whose stream-of-consciousness commentaries are sometimes coherent and sometimes not, Ayers would seem like someone to steer clear of but for the fact that he produces wondrous sounds from a two-stringed violin.
Lopez learns his discovery once studied at Juilliard and was a precocious cellist rather than a fiddler, while flashbacks reveal a budding teenage virtuoso whose adoring mother advises him that, “There is a whole world waiting for you.” Lopez gets a good column out of it — so good, in fact, that a reader is inspired to send along an unused cello, which Lopez duly presents to Ayers virtually in the shadow of Disney Hall.
Pic’s overwrought nature is best exemplified by the scene in which the bereft man takes bow to cello for the first time in years. Ayers’ pure, simple notes are soon accompanied on the soundtrack by a full orchestra in booming accompaniment, along with noble birds soaring above Los Angeles onscreen.
Unfortunately, what should at this point become a full-bodied story digresses and devolves into something closer to a case study. While hints of his incipient mental problems are divulged in flashbacks, a reluctant Ayers is dragged by Lopez to a skid-row shelter that’s always surrounded by junkies, crazies and surlies. Lopez further arranges for cello lessons (with the principal cellist of the Los Angeles Symphony, no less), as well as an apartment where his uncertain cohort can practice and an entree to an L.A. Phil rehearsal that provokes in Ayers a photo-chemical reaction, resulting in his own private version of the Star Gate sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Relations between the two men fray as Ayers’ resentment at being a charity case erupts into outright rebellion against his enabler, who himself decides he’s had enough. At the same time, the pic strays precariously close to becoming a semi-documentary about the rehab center, reaching its embarrassing nadir when it shows a beaming Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (Marcos De Silvas) promising a ton of city money to the facility.
More agreeably, Esa Pekka-Salonen is fleetingly seen conducting at Disney Hall, which gets an impressive, if brief, bigscreen outing. Although partly shot in Cleveland (which scenes it’s hard to tell), the action never leaves downtown Los Angeles. As in the recent “Crossing Over,” overhead shots looking down at the city’s concrete arteries crank up the portentous omniscience.
With an utterly different sort of character, Foxx, like Downey, seems locked in a box by Ayers; the actor capably catches all the outward manifestations of the genuinely debilitating mental illness that has thwarted a potentially brilliant musical career, but neither he nor the script offers anything beyond that to lend the man full dimension. The latent tragic resonance of art both achieved and lost has been sacrificed at the altar of prosaic, politically correct news reporting about the plight of the homeless, a choice underlined by end-credits statistics about the number of street people in Los Angeles.
At individual moments, Wright’s direction has snap and precision, but the big-picture focus seems bifurcated and, ultimately, uncertain. Seamus McGarvey’s widescreen lensing is bold and clear, while music and sound elements are ear-filling.