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THE SOLOIST

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Lisa Gay Hamilton
Director: Joe Wright
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 116 Minutes
Release Date: August 4, 2009

“A year ago, I met a man who was down on his luck and thought I might be able to help him.”

Film ***1/2

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been stunned by a film’s underwhelming performance while in theaters. When I first saw the trailer for The Soloist, I was certain it was going to draw some sort of huge response from audiences. If any sort of film was going pass by ticket buyers, an uplifting, true story based release from the Oscar nominated director of Atonement and starring Oscar winner Jamie Foxx and Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr. seemed far from a likely candidate.

And yet, that’s exactly what happened to the film. Originally scheduled to hit theaters last fall, as it no doubt fit the bill of an ideal Oscar contender, The Soloist inexplicably got pushed back, only to get dumped in theaters in late April without the benefit of an enthusiastic marketing campaign. Needless to say, I’m still scratching my head as to why this movie wasn’t the easy hit at the box office it was destined to be.

As it turns out, the trailers and ads for the movie weren’t entirely honest. What was being sold was the story of a down on his luck journalist who finds inspiration from a homeless man with an unexpected and beautiful musical gift. While that story is a key ingredient of The Soloist, the movie also happens to confront a number of grim issues without the usual sentimental approach, which is what I appreciated so much about it.

The story follows L.A. Times reporter Steve Lopez (Downey Jr.), who at the beginning of the story is experiencing multiple cases of bad luck. Not only has he suffered an injury following a nasty fall off a bike, but he is at a moment in his professional life where he is beginning to doubt himself. It goes without saying that he needs redemption in the form of a big news story.

That’s exactly what he finds when he crosses paths with Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx) on a city street one day. Lopez hears a beautiful sound of a violin in the distance, and is surprised to find that the person playing the instrument, Ayers, is a homeless man, and that the violin has only two strings. When Ayers reveals that he was a former student at Julliard, Lopez pretty much has all he needs to write up a surefire comeback piece.

Based on what I’ve described thus far, one could easily assume how the rest of the story plays out. So many inspirational movies have followed a specific type of formula, where in which a privileged man (in this case Lopez) has his life forever changed by getting to know a less fortunate soul (in this case Ayers), who also his life forever changed. Even such fantastic films as the criminally underrated Resurrecting the Champ follow such storytelling rules to an extent.

So it’s rather amazing to note that The Soloist doesn’t exactly play by these conventional rules, and instead ventures into other areas beyond the bond between Ayers and Lopez, resulting in something truly grounded in reality. The film also opens viewer’s eyes to the ever increasing homeless situation in greater Los Angeles. Mental illness also becomes a focus of the story, as it played a big role in how Ayers went from prestigious Julliard student to a street bum with nothing but a shopping cart in his possession.

Lopez himself, who also wrote the nonfiction book of the same name, was a technical advisor on the film. His knowledge of the actual events, combined with director Joe Wright’s passionate filmmaking, pretty much ensured that the movie would delivered the intended effect right from the get go. Wright continues to astound me as a filmmaker, as the overall dramatic punch came marginally close to that of Atonement, which is enough of an accomplishment.

It should also be mentioned that no other film in recent memory has captured Los Angeles in a more authentic and visually stirring fashion. Wright and his cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, create so many powerful images of the city that will long remain in my mind. I would even rank this film alongside Heat and Collateral in terms of how poetically L.A. is captured on film.

And who could as k for a more solid pair of actors than Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.? As expected, both actors bring their A game to the material, with Foxx fully immersing himself in the brilliant but mentally troubled Ayers and Downey bring his usual sharp wit and a bold level of humility to the role of Lopez. Once again, I can’t for the life of me comprehend why a film with two well noted dramatic actors, especially in the wake of Downey’s recent comeback with Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, didn’t get a larger response from audiences.

But I have strong faith that The Soloist will find its audience on DVD and Blu-ray. With a powerful story like this and two lead actors of such high caliber, it would be impossible for it not to capture the attention of those who missed it in its theatrical run. It’s a moving and absorbing piece of filmmaking that will definitely defy your expectations.

Video ****

This Paramount release has been given a tremendously strong picture presentation, and this is one film that truly merits one. The anamorphic image is thoroughly crisp, incredibly detailed and booming with bright natural colors. The film’s most beautiful sequence, a Fantasia-esque color montage set to orchestral music, looks even more beautiful than it sounds. And the authentic L.A. setting is brought to even more vivid life, as every one of the scenic views of the city are captured in such a way that you feel as if you’re right there in the City of Angels. Terrific job!

Audio ***1/2

I just realized that I haven’t even touched on the many classical music pieces included in the film, which is indeed the main highlight of this superb 5.1 mix. Every musical note captured in the film’s score, whether it’s from Ayers playing his two-string violin on the street corner or an actual orchestral performance, is delivered effectively and quite beautifully through the channels. The L.A. setting also provides plenty of background noise to be delivered, i.e. traffic on a city street. Dialogue delivery is top notch as always.

Features ***1/2

Paramount has conducted an all around perfect lineup of extras for this DVD release. There’s a commentary with director Joe Wright, in addition to numerous featurettes, all of which are very well handled and are a step above the traditional fluff presentations. Among them are “An Unlikely Friendship: Making The Soloist”, which features interviews with the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers as well as cast and crew members, “Kindness, Courtesy and Respect: Mr. Ayers and Mr. Lopez” delves even further into the real life friendship that inspired the film, and “One Size Does Not Fit All: Addressing Homelessness in Los Angeles” takes a closer look at this serious issue. Rounding out the extras is an animated PSA, five Deleted Scenes and several Bonus Previews.

Summary:

The Soloist is quite a moving and wonderfully told true story that for once doesn’t rely on the conventional formula of the typical inspirational movie, thus making it all the more exceptional. The talents of Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr. and director Joe Wright, along with some beautiful music and powerful imagery, give the film its power, and it’s one you shouldn’t miss.

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