thu 12/12/2019

Film: The Soloist | reviews, news & interviews

Film: The Soloist

Film: The Soloist

Surprising honesty for a Hollywood film about homelessness

It may be that the actor had already delivered his most explicit self-portrait when he starred in James Toback’s Black and White back in 1999. In that scattershot satire, Downey was seen flirting with an enraged Mike Tyson; with hindsight, that now looks as close as any man could get to ’fessing up to some serious kamikaze instincts. But since kicking his drug habit at the start of this decade, after spells in prison and rehab, Downey’s career has played like a running commentary on his wild years, whether playing the disfigured and delusional lead in the film version of The Singing Detective, or a jittery drug fiend in the Rotoscope animation A Scanner Darkly. The past few years have seen him imaginatively exorcising old demons. First there was Iron Man, in which his character literally rebuilt himself in order to survive. Then came Tropic Thunder, where he squeezed untold comic mileage from lampooning colleagues who take this acting lark way too seriously.

Now there is The Soloist, which casts Downey as Steve Lopez, an LA Times reporter who hits a wellspring of good copy when he meets Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man with exceptional musical talent. Nathaniel was once a dazzling cellist enrolled at Juilliard; now he shuffles around Los Angeles in a tin-foil waistcoat and tattered plastic garland, dragging an overloaded trolley and stopping only to play Beethoven on a two-string violin. Steve makes his travails the focus of a regular column, and also befriends the bewildered musician, passing on to him a cello donated by a reader. It’s pretty clear that the down-at-heel hack is being transformed by this friendship, but the advantages for Nathaniel, who is still wrestling with the schizophrenia which ended his musical career, are less obvious.

One need only imagine Ron Howard in the director’s chair, James Horner brandishing the conductor’s baton and/or Robin Williams in either of the lead roles to grasp how The Soloist could have tipped into lazy redemption and cornball sentiment. But while it’s an easy film to mock - white, middle-class media types learn the meaning of grace and spirituality from a penniless African-American - it would be churlish not to recognise the sparkling work of the British director Joe Wright. His last film, a stiff adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, seemed to smother the natural vitality he displayed in his 2005 Pride and Prejudice. But The Soloist finds him hitting, if not quite sustaining, Altmanesque notes of exuberance in the scenes set in the Times offices, or among the staff and stragglers at the Lamp Community, an outreach group for the homeless.

There’s still more that Wright could have done in his quest for authenticity: this might be the ghetto, but it’s an impeccably lit, carefully co-ordinated ghetto that’s crying out for the documentary-style chaos of a Michael Winterbottom, or the brazen ugliness of a Harmony Korine. And Wright would do well to shed his infatuation with overhead shots. You can almost forgive him that moment when the camera rises above the city to accompany Nathaniel’s return to the cello, since we’re all partial to that sort of soaring-of-the-human-spirit balderdash. But when the same eye-of-God camera moves are used to present a row of toilet cubicles, or the improvised beds laid out in a shelter, we’re witnessing nothing more complex than a director wheeling out his party piece again and again.

Despite such minor lapses, and a silly sub-plot involving a professional cellist played by Tom Hollander, The Soloist still contains more honest exasperation than could be expected from a studio movie about homelessness. The screenwriter Susannah Grant, adapting Steve Lopez’s non-fiction book, is not someone to pass up an opportunity for irony, as demonstrated when Steve interrupts a late-night pay-phone call from Nathaniel to receive an award at a black-tie media bash. But the actors sniff out the truth amidst any manipulations. Foxx is tantalisingly unreadable, so much so that you wish the film had gone the whole hog and expunged the flashbacks which Explain Everything. Nelsan Ellis displays a loose charm as the self-assured Lamp Community manager. And Downey can’t cough or blink or stare out of the window in a daze without investing the moment with frazzled, melancholic weariness.

His scenes with Foxx tick all the buddy-movie boxes. But I preferred his twangy rapport with Catherine Keener, who plays Mary, his editor and ex-wife. Reflecting on Nathaniel’s passion, Steve gasps, “I’ve never loved anything the way he loves music.” The near-imperceptible wince that Keener gives in response is worth a dozen acting courses, or a tower of textbooks.

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