By Malcolm Woodard | Shadow and Act May 8, 2013 at 1:13PM
Upon initially hearing about The Soloist, when it first was released, I remember groaning at the thought of what I imagined would be yet another studio film infected with the media-old "Magical Negro" virus - the male idiot savant of African descent, who naturally comes fully equipped with his arsenal of mystical powers, and aphorisms that demonstrate his abundant wisdom, as he helps a Caucasian, also usually male, overcome some personal struggle.
Seeing the trailer later on in that year didn't do much to deflect my initial thoughts.
So, it was easy to, if not scratch it of my list of films to see this year, at a minimum, transfer it to my list of films I would eventually see on home video.
I went with the latter, and finally saw it for the first time over the weekend. And while I can't quite say that The Soloist is a film you MUST see, I don't think you'd regret investing the time and money if you did opt to see it, like I did.
To be sure, it still does suffer from a mild case of the "Magical Negro" virus; however, I suppose the fact that it's based on a true story makes it an easier pill to swallow. Although, true to life or not, I've had more than my fill of films with M.N. syndrome - to name a few that immediately come to mind: Will Smith/Matt Damon in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Michael Clarke Duncan/Tom Hanks in The Green Mile, Don Cheadle/Nicholas Cage in The Family Man, and probably the most memorable in recent history, Radio, also reportedly based on a real life story, starring Cuba Gooding, Jr as the mentally challenged "Radio" who befriends Ed Harris, the white football coach of the high school he attends, and becomes an inspiration to him and the 70s southern community in which he lives. We could even throw in Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus to Keanu Reeves' Neo in The Matrix trilogy, and Morgan Freeman as God to the hapless Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty. I could go on...
I hope that films of this nature die a quick, deliberate death. After all, we're in the 21st century for chrissakes!
In The Soloist, Jamie Foxx is mostly believable as the schizophrenic Nathaniel Ayers Jr., whose short attention span and inability to answer a question in less than 100 sentences, distracted me a little, with Foxx's face being behind the words. I almost didn't want to take his performance entirely seriously, thanks to his off screen shenanigans, and the fact that I'm used to seeing him in comedic roles. He's a comedian after all, and it took me several scenes into the film, after his initial appearance, to forget that I was watching Jamie Foxx, the comedian, and instead, Jamie Foxx the thespian, trying to be Nathaniel Ayers Jr. Ultimately, I would have much preferred to be watching Nathaniel Ayers Jr - without a trace of Jamie Foxx present - or at least, a fraction of him.
Robert Downey Jr was good as Steve Lopez, the L.A. Times journalist who befriends Ayers. He's indubitably one of the better actors working in the industry currently, in my not-so humble opinion. I love much of his work; although, there always seems to be a kind of smugness or "snarkiness" about him, no matter what role he plays. That doesn't necessarily turn me off, but I do frequently notice, enough to comment. I almost want to see him completely broken in a role, from the inside out, shedding that veneer that can be distracting.
This is the first Joe Wright-directed film that I've seen. He does a serviceable job behind the camera, however, some of his choices seemed rather forced, trite and unnecessary. They felt like ideas of a novice, than of a multiple award-winning director, with a few films on his resume. For example, visual cues such as: Ayers, as a teenager, playing his cello in the basement of his home, quite forcefully, his face lit in shadows, with a roaring fireplace behind him, slightly out of focus, sharing the other half of the screen, meant as a symbol of just how fervent and passionate the relationship is between Ayers, his instrument and the music it creates. Or the random, non-descript voice-overs of men and women heard whenever Ayers experiences one of his many psychological breakdowns, meant to signify the voices in his head. Or the camera following a pair of birds in flight over the city of Los Angeles, in an early scene as Ayers plays his cello under a bridge, and Downey Jr's character, close by, simply listens, captivated. Or as Steve and Nathaniel listen to Beethoven at a symphony rehearsal, and the music transports Nathaniel into what becomes a solid minute of twisting and spiraling patterns of colors filling the entire screen, that reminded me of an iTunes visualizer.
But overall, it's a touching story with a few tear-jerking moments throughout, as one would expect in a film like this. However, it lacks focus, and Joe Wright's direction is somewhat uneven.
In our current economy, amidst all the surface class warfare arguments between the conservative right and the liberal left, The Soloist is an affirmation of the left's stance; at least, it wants and tries to be. It certainly doesn't fail, but, Joe Wright's obvious nod in that direction doesn't fully satisfy. If you introduce an issue, and want the audience to be fully invested in the journey, go all the way with it, warts and all, or simply don't introduce it at all. It leaves the viewer somewhat befuddled, searching, wanting to tie up every loose string into some definitive whole. Unless you want your audience both wondering and wandering, unnecessarily.
As I started this review stating, I can't strongly recommend it, but it's worth a look.