The Soloist is grand, but got bumped….how come?

Posted on 02 May 2009 by HansKlopek

I went to see The Soloist yesterday, well aware of the possibility that it could be rather craptastic. It is just so easy to execute this type of story either incorrectly or in a formulaic, predictable way. Crazy people in movies attract Oscar buzz, not box office prosperity outside of awards season.

Great people are involved in this movie no doubt, but Dreamworks decided not to put the film up against Oscar titans like Benjamim Button and Slumdog Millionaire and instead dumped it in the trash basket that is April, where contenders with little quality often go to die.

It’s a shame…I found out The Soloist is actually a lovely film. More than that, I would have called it one of the best films of last year had it been released then. I really don’t understand the logic behind dumping it in April instead of letting it compete as an Oscar contender. It might be that I see more quality in it than the studio heads did, but it also would have made more sense from a box office standpoint to stick with the November release date.

foxx-and-downey-in-the-tunnelMaybe the film’s premise felt a little too Oscar pandering in the minds of the suits: Robert Downey, Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times who one day, while escaping from the bustle of the newsroom, hears violin music emanating from a public park near his building. It’s originator is Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a street person who plays with only two strings but has the talent and focus of a great player.

Lopez is fascinated by Nathaniel, who was a student at Julliard before his own mental instability left him a destitute nomad. With clothes salvaged from dumpsters, greasy hair matted on both sides, and a constant flow of jibberish springing from his damaged brain, Nathaniel has plunged into an ocean of insanity with no hope for air. The arrival of Lopez, a troubled but at least balanced denizen of city life, is a welcome change.

Lopez begins with the curious air of a reporter who has stumbled onto a good story. He writes a column about Nathaniel that gets good response. A reader sends an old cello to Lopez so Nathaniel can play it. He gives it to him and  slowly begins to try helping the man. He suggests a move to a nearby shelter, but understands why homeless might stay away after seeing the dangerous poor who live outside its gates. Lopez seems to want to get Nathaniel on the right course and then wash his hands of him. As the story progresses though, he finds it harder and harder to do this.

Among the film’s many accomplishments is that the struggle is not for Nathaniel to become sane, but for Lopez to realize his responsibility to the man and the fact that madness has no easy cure. Lopez brings up Nathaniel’s need for medication and institutionalization throughout the story, but it comes to represent more of a dumping ground, something that Lopez can use to extricate himself from connection to the troubled man. Lopez is on a journey toward caring; the film tells us that there are 90,000 homeless people in greater Los Angeles, and the power of rolling down your window to acknowledge one of them, as Lopez does to Nathaniel, is what it wants to convey.

This premise could have gone absolutely wrong–a film released last year, Reign Over Me, had the same architecture foxx-and-downey-with-cartand was hopelessly misguided. The film’s director, Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement), and his writer, Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), succeed by refusing to provide an easy payoff: the film’s conclusion isn’t a trite and meaningless court battle over Nathaniel’s well being, but a perceptive acknowledgment that madness is inescapable, and that all a compassionate person can do for a troubled one, in some cases, is be there.

This is a poetic, intelligent, and elevating film. There is a lot of great music in it, particularly in a scene where Lopez takes Nathaniel to a performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Wright takes his camera inside Nathaniel’s brain as he passes into a state of euphoria. Iridiscient images dance through his mind at the sound of every note, and we feel the surge of adrenaline pass through him as his heart takes flight. Jamie Foxx absolutely glows in this moment; his love of music is so profound that we know he couldn’t have made it this long without it.

Foxx may well have seen Oscar gold written all over this character, but his performance shows that he did the work; it is hard not to be mesmerized when Nathaniel is on one of his stream of consciousness threads. Wright and Grant do provide flashbacks to his earlier life with a happy childhood in Cleveland and the origins of his mental illness at Julliard. Foxx is both sympathetic and chilling in these scenes as his character dances between his love of music and the demands of the voices in his head. Later when he explodes as Lopez suggests a madhouse as a solution, we understand the pain and paranoia that motivate it. This character could have been a clown. Foxx finds the heart.

Downey adds another to his string of great recent performances. With a short, graying haircut and a spread of facial scruff, he finds an older man who wants forever to live outside but finds redemption in allowing himself to come in from the cold. He is supported beautifully by the great Catherine Keener, who plays his editor and former wife who has been put on hold by this workaholic for years but can’t deny how much she still needs him.

Joe Wright is not the obvious choice for this material, but he again shows that he is a great emerging talent; watch the scene where Lopez first gives Nathaniel the cello and try your best not to be moved. Grant does well to avoid the obvious pratfalls of this type of film, and emerges with a screenplay that is closer to Awakenings and a far cry from Reign Over Me.

So why was this film deemed unworthy of awards competition this past year? As I said, perhaps the premise itself simply felt too Oscar pandering. We’ve seen this type of film before and it is easy to dismiss it as schlocky, stand-up-and-cheer type stuff. It might have been easier to dismiss a movie like this simply because it was about a crazy person, which voters generally look at as the obvious ploy for Oscar consideration. Shit, there is even a joke in Tropic Thunder about it.

They also might not have had the confidence in a movie that is supposed to be uplifting but isn’t conventionally uplifting. You have to pick the elevation out of this, which is something that I liked but Academy voters might have felt the opposite about. A movie like this also depends on a lead performance that sets the bar for the year in acting. While Foxx is good, it is impossible to seperate him from the countless other crazy person performances that have gotten awards consideration.

foxx-and-downey1Just spitballing here, but Dreamworks, which also released Tropic Thunder, might have wanted to keep the focus on Downey’s performance in that film and might have felt that his work in The Soloist would make the question of what film to nominate him for uncomfortably murky. They could have been playing it safe and didn’t want to cost him a nomination by putting out too much of his good work.

The reason that bumping The Soloist to April doesn’t make any sense is because there is no way the studio can expect for it to succeed at the box office in this time of the year. I mean Wolverine came out today, Star Trek comes out next week. People don’t want to see sad movies that make them think right now. They want mindless pre-summer entertainment. The studio would have been better off releasing The Soloist when it could have scored box office points for being “another awards contender” that people felt the need to see. It stood a better chance of making its money back in November than it does right now.

Quaid brought up to me the possibility that studios want to show that Oscar season isn’t the only time when good, thought-provoking films can come out. That might be true, but I feel like this type of film has a better chance of succeeding in the October-December period of the year rather than right now. Dreamworks did themselves no favors when they decided to bump this film. It opened at number 4 last week, and I guarantee it will not improve this week.                           

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