THE SOLOIST is a bad movie. Bad, in ways that fawning Hollywood studios in search of Oscar-pay-dirt can't mask. Witness the fact that is was completed in October 2008, and could've been released in Oscar contender season but was instead pushed back to a 2009 release. The film is not bad because of the central performances. Robert Downey Junior is just fine as real-life LA Times columnist Steve Lopez and Jamie Foxx is impressive as Nathaniel Ayers, the schizophrenic, homeless Cellist that Lopez befriends. The film is bad because of the poor choices made by its director, Joe Wright, the very same director lauded for his adaptations of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and ATONEMENT. I was astonished at the critical acclaim the latter achieved. To my mind, Wright took a delicate, clever book and ruined it with his heavy-handed, showy, directorial "style". His self-conscious over-choreographed cinematography got in the way of his material.
THE SOLOIST is the ultimate exemplar of the fatal flaw in Wright's direction and, in my worst moments, I am rather glad he has been exposed as a mere stylist. We have impressive shots everywhere. A liquid camera curves through a newsroom taking up the editor (Catherine Keener), then a reporter, and finally our icon of liberal angst, Steve Lopez. After a chance encounter with the homeless savant is written up in a LA Times column, a reader sends in a cello. Rather than cut to the scene where Lopez delivers it to Ayers, we have a Cello-POV tracking shot through the same newsroom. When Lopez hears Ayers play the cello for the first time, the camera swoops up to the skies and follows birds in flight. All of this shows some technical ability, but again and again I asked myself WHY? Why do we need the cello-POV-shot? What does it add to my understanding of Ayers' plight or my response to it?
If self-conscious camera-work is a continuous problem with Wright's work, THE SOLOIST has its own particular problems. The biggest is how Wright chooses to depict schizophrenia. Rather than depict illness from the inside-out, as in A BEAUTIFUL MIND or THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, he goes for a rather lazy sound-scape. He doesn't really seem all that interested in mental illness as an internal experience, but rather in bludgeoning the film-goers over the head with some propaganda for a more caring society. (Note the continuous use of the US flag as an icon as a contrast to the most marginalised citizens). The second problem is that Wright clearly isn't that interested in music. Yes, it's there as a backdrop, and we are meant to tear-up, as Lopez does, hearing Ayers play. But there is no transcendental moment for the audience, as there is for Lopez. We are moved neither by Beethoven nor by Ayers' plight.
Note to director: next time, concentrate more on how to evoke an emotional response from the audience and less on how to create cool effects with the camera.
THE SOLOIST was completed in October 2008. The studio chose not to release it until April 2009 in the USA and Canada. It goes on release in the Netherlands, Australia, Greece, New Zealand, Israel, Mexico and the UK in September and in Germany, Portugal, Brazil, Denmark, Romania, the Czech Republic and Argentina in October. However, it is already available on Region 1 DVD replete with some rather self-congratulatory and pompous extras.