“The Soloist” has all the makings of an Academy Award-winning film.
It’s an inspirational, true-life story first told in a best-selling book. It stars an actor who won his Oscar playing another musician. It’s directed by the man who garnered “Atonement” seven Oscar nods.
In fact, “The Soloist” originally was slated for release last fall, when studios usually showcase their films most likely to get the gold. Observers were mystified when it was moved.
The film, however, is rather like one of the Bach cello suites mentioned in the movie performed by a technically competent but passionless player — it doesn’t assault your senses, but it doesn’t excite them, either.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Steve Lopez, the Los Angeles Times columnist who wrote the book on which the film is based. The newspaper business is troubled, and so is he. He lives alone but has to face his ex (Catherine Keener) every day — she’s his editor. He’s trying to recover from a nasty spill on his bike while satisfying that editor with the kind of human interest stories that sell papers.
He soon finds one of those stories in the person of Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx). Lopez hears some moving violin music in Pershing Square and finds the source, a homeless man camped out at the park’s Beethoven statue. That chance meeting leads not just to a column, but to a complicated friendship that affects both their lives.
It might be an affecting story for the audience, too, if it weren’t for the cliche-ridden script by Susannah Grant (“Catch and Release”). In the movies, the mentally ill and homeless are usually, deep down, smarter and more spiritually attuned than the rest of us.
Ayers is almost certainly schizophrenic, and the biggest problem with this film is that it doesn’t let the audience understand his tragedy. He was a promising cello student at the Juilliard Wright loves long tracking shots. Here, he tones down his self-admitted tendency to show off and, instead, lets the camera move more organically.
There’s a wonderful sequence when Ayers attends a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal at the Wall Disney Concert Hall. He closes his eyes, and we experience Beethoven as he might, a mishmash of colorful abstract images.
There’s not much else here for music lovers. We never find out why Ayers is such a devotee of Beethoven. It’s easy to guess why one against-the-grain musician might admire another, but it feels as if the filmmakers knew nothing about the great composer and just tacked on the obsession as an affectation.
The ending also feels hastily appended. Lopez spends much of the film wondering how he can get the reluctant Ayers on the medication that would give him a better life. He ponders pretending his friend has become violent. When Ayers actually does — threatening to “gut” him “like a fish” — he instead backs off. The next time they meet, they’re magically friends again. This is one real-life story that doesn’t feel real.
The performances are not exactly Oscar-worthy, either. They’re convincing enough, but they don’t jump off the screen — much like this film, which wants to inspire but merely instructs.
TITLE: “The Soloist”
RATING: PG-13 (Thematic elements, some drug use and language)
CREDITS: Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Susannah Grant based on the book by Steve Lopez.
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
WEB SITE: soloistmovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS