Mark my words: Joe Wright’s fourth feature will be a monster of a movie. At least, it should be. With the first three films of his young career he’s conquered the classic genteel British period adaptation with his superlative Pride & Prejudice, waded into the realm of upper-crust contemporary literati with the clunky, but not unredeemable Atonement, and with his newest, The Soloist, he’s not only navigated a leap to Los Angeles and the Hollywood star system, but managed to inject some sense of individual artistry into the generally rote inspirational buddy-pic drama, one that comes laden with the heavy pathos of a “true” story, no less. If he’s smart, and if The Soloist connects with audiences, he’d do well to push the long takes and odd visual tics sprinkled through his first three features as far as they can go. After all, he’s come this far, and Hollywood can always use more true eccentrics.
The Soloist’s setup is almost unimaginably unappetizing: world-weary Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez, in search of a story for his latest column, stumbles across homeless, schizophrenic busker Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. bowing a tune in a park near a Beethoven statue and decides, after a few phone calls corroborating the man’s claim that he spent time studying music at Julliard, that’s he’s struck journalistic gold. His first article on the musician is so powerful (though we only hear brief snatches of it in voiceover) that a moved elderly reader sends the paper a spotless cello as a gift for Nathaniel who’s been plying his art with only a busted two-stringed violin. The simple act of delivering the cello leads, of course, to further acts of kindness from Lopez (who Nathaniel calls Mr. Lopez), further columns, city money being dumped into rehabilitating the area in which Nathaniel lives (for better and for ill), and a burgeoning friendship. For the unmoored, sarcastic, divorced (in the movie, not in real life) Lopez, some kind of small redemption isn’t far behind.
Based on Lopez’s encounters with Nathaniel, which abetted a long-running series of columns, and eventually the book from which screenwriter Susannah Grant (In Her Shoes, Erin Brockovich) drew her adaptation, The Soloist is a film that would normally be all about the performers and performances, released in the late-year awards queue amidst a flood of star interviews while the director gamely slinks off to the side. That one leaves the movie thinking less about the troubled conscience of Robert Downey Jr.’s Lopez or the sadly lost mind of Jamie Foxx’s Nathaniel than unexpected things like the plight of Los Angeles’s thousands of homeless, the power of classical music, or the death of print journalism, perhaps explains why we find it hitting theaters in April. Click here to read the rest of Jeff Reichert’s review of The Soloist.