Film review – The Soloist (2009)

Nathaniel Ayres (Jamie Foxx) and Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.)
Nathaniel Ayres (Jamie Foxx) and Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.)

The Soloist is based on an actual friendship between Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (played in the film by Robert Downey Jr.)  and a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia named Nathaniel Ayers (played in the film by Jamie Foxx). Lopez began writing a series of stories about Ayers after discovering that Ayers was an astonishingly talented musician. As the two men got to know each other Lopez found himself wanting to help Ayers get off the streets and get treatment. Lopez’s motivations were partly compassionate and partly opportunistic, and The Soloist explores the complicated dynamics that resulted from Lopez’s intervention into Ayers’s life.

Audiences looking for a feel-good film about a troubled musical genius finding his way home (such as in Shine) are going to be very disappointment with The Soloist as it is not a film that offers any easy solutions. It is to the film’s credit that it portrays mental illness as a complex issue where nothing is straightforward and sometimes managing the problem is a better solution than attempting to cure it. Foxx does an excellent job portraying Ayers as a troubled man who deserves our sympathy but not pity. Downey Jr. tends to slip into mannerisms that he has carried over from other films but nevertheless effectively acts as the identification point for the audience; channelling our frustration, good intentions and naivety. The Soloist is also a damning portrayal of the abject poverty and homelessness that exists in every big city and the scenes set on Skid Row, which were created with the assistance of the local homeless population and support shelters, are very confronting.

THE SOLOISTThe Soloist is the first US film by the English director Joe Wright, whose masterful Atonement demonstrated how richly aware he is about how to use cinematic style to tell a story. The Soloist doesn’t quite give Wright the same opportunities as Atonement did but there are key scenes that indicate that he is developing into one of the most important directors of his generation. Simply through visuals Wright is able to convey the power that music has to fill a space. The defining scene in The Soloist is when Lopez takes Ayers to listen to a professional orchestra and Wright captures Ayers’s sense of transcendence simply through a montage of colour and light. In this one scene Wright has come as close as anybody has to visually capturing the power of music.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. I have to totaly disagree with you, we just the movie at a screening in our filmschool, and everyone agreed that the movie was totaly pointless. No character development or real plot. The music interpretation scene was copied in a bad way from 2001. The whole thing mixed with bad slapstick like jokes … all in all, a realy bad movie 2 Stars (one for robert downey, one for Jamie Fox)

  2. Hi chrissli

    Thanks for your counter arguments but I don’t think it is fair to describe this film as pointless. It makes some very strong comments on homelessness, mental health and how we respond to those issues. It is not a film that develops or resolves conventionally but I don’t understand how you can say it has no character development or real plot. The Steve Lopez character goes through a massive transformation during the film. Nathaniel Ayers, less so, but part of the point the film is trying to make is that people with conditions like him don’t suddenly become ‘cured’ and live happily ever after. As I mentioned in my review, this is not a film that offers any easy solutions and it’s not going to deliver the great cathartic resolution that audiences have become used to receiving from more mainstream cinema.

    As for the 2001: A Space Odyssey comment – I honestly don’t believe that you can accuse one film of copying another simply because it uses a similar visual technique. The sequences in both films use colour and light differently and for different narrative and dramatic purposes.

    Slapstick jokes? I’ll admit that there were a couple of odd moments involving visual humour that didn’t really work. But I can only think of two moments.


  3. Hey Thomas,

    considering your additions, I still think that the character development could have been clearer. I’m sure that it is a good book, but for me, and a lot of the other students, the movie lacks a clear introduction of the characters.

    For me it was hard to get connected to the main character, and understand or even share his feelings/actions. This leads to not caring about the character, which ends up in having the feeling that the movie is pointless – even though the movie gives some strong comments on homelessness and mental health.

    You might be right about the Space odyssey thing, but I still think that the scene is very far away from beeing described as “close as anybody has to visually capturing the power of music” – for me it felt like a cheap trick and not well crafted.

    thank you for your answere, great blog by the way ;-)

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