THE SOLOIST is an odd film in that it constantly borders on being a little too preachy and a little too boring. With two of the better actors working today and a great up and coming director, I expected an acting showcase with each star trying to outdo the other. Although the acting was great, there just wasn’t much material here for anyone to do anything with. Then when they tried to throw in a deeper meaning about being homeless, it kind of lost the audience and stumbled to an anticlimactic finish.
Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is a reporter in LA that stumbles upon a man playing a broken violin in a park. After striking up a conversation with him, he learns that his name is Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) and that he’s a former Julliard student and an amazing musician. This sets Steve on a quest to help Nathaniel out by getting him off the streets and into playing music again. Concurrently, Steve begins to write about Nathaniel in a column that gets city-wide attention. The goal, of course, is to help the 90k+ homeless currently living in LA, but the reality is that the people he’s trying to help face more problems than just not having a place to live.
So there’s kind of two storylines going on here. The first is Steve’s quest to help Nathaniel and the resistance he receives in the process. The second is Steve’s (and to a lesser extent, the city of Los Angeles) attempt to solve the “homeless” problem. As far as Nathaniel is concerned, it gets to be a messy situation because Nathaniel is clearly mentally unstable and Steve can’t fix that. Nathaniel is on the border of not being able to care for himself and being normal, so he can make his own decisions and he chooses to not be a part of society. That falls back to the old adage; you can’t help someone that can’t help themselves.
The second issue is much more difficult and one that has no answer. No one knows what to do with the homeless and so the movie presents a problem that has no solution. Unfortunately, the characters in the film do what all of us do; acknowledge the problem and then move on with our lives. As for the film, even trying to address this issue is a complete distraction from the story of Steve and Nathaniel that they had tried so hard to make us care about.
That leads us to the main problem with the film and that’s the fact that we don’t care about either character. Jamie Foxx did a great job as Nathaniel, but his character should have been more of the arc for Steve than anything else. No one can relate to Nathaniel, but all of us can relate to Steve, so it was important for the filmmakers to clearly convey the range of emotions that Steve went through. We needed to feel his helplessness, his frustration, his concern and his love. Unfortunately, we didn’t really feel anything from him because his arc was not focused on nearly enough. I would have traded the flashback scenes of Nathaniel as a child for more scenes of Steve trying to fix the problems and failing.
I was pretty disappointed with the effort from Joe Wright. After PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and ATONEMENT, I consider him a near-master storyteller. He should have known that these characters and this subject matter was going nowhere. He missed an opportunity to really showcase two fine actors and to tell a pretty good story. As it is, we just didn’t care enough about any of the events on screen to really get into the movie to the extent we needed to.