At first glance, The Soloist is exactly the type of film that the Academy seems to crave. It features an Academy Award winner and nominee in Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., so, when the release was delayed from late 2008 (prime Oscar season) to early 2009, there didn't seem to be much hope that this film was going to be any good. However, I was still anticipating this film, primarily because of the actors, although Joe Wright has proved himself a competent director with Atonement, as well as Pride & Prejudice. Early in the year it can be a bit slow on the cinematic front, so this was definitely one I had my eye on.
It's a true story of an unlikely friendship between a schizophrenic street musician, Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx), and a workaholic journalist, Steve Lopez (Downey), whose personal life is in shambles. Essentially, Lopez was out looking for a story and heard Nathaniel on the street, playing his beloved Beethoven on a violin with only two strings. Nathaniel claimed to have studied at Julliard, and after confirming this, Lopez writes a series of articles about Nathaniel that inspires the entire city. After much exasperation on Lopez's part in trying to fix Nathaniel in order to redeem his own life, he realizes that all Nathaniel needs is a friend.
The film gives us a look at the homeless situation on Skid Row in Los Angeles, and almost feels like a documentary at times, but this serves no real purpose other than creating sympathy for Nathaniel and subsequent puzzlement when he declares his wish to stay on the streets. There are also many scenes displaying Nathaniel's devastating struggle with mental illness, each of which is very heavy handed, although I don't know how else you could depict schizophrenia. In this lies a real hopelessness, that this talented individual could be beaten down at every turn in his life by this seemingly treatable condition.
It's not hard to believe this is a true story because nothing really happens in the movie. Lopez even notes at the in voice over at the end of the film that Nathaniel is in pretty much the same shape as he was before they'd met, and I'm not convinced Lopez himself underwent any form transformation, no matter how subtle, other than maybe becoming slightly less selfish. It makes it a little more interesting to know that these guys are still alive and living in LA in pretty much the same situations as they were in the film, but there isn't enough arch to make me care too much about either one of them. Overall, The Soloist is a mediocre film with interesting performances and artistic cinematography, but weighed down by a sluggish, uninspired narrative.