Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Soloist

I could honestly care less whether or not a film is based on a true story. When I see a movie, I judge as a separate, narrative, individual film. I never judge a movie based on how accurately it portrays the facts of a real event or person. It amuses me how many people believe the disclaimer on a movie poster: BASED ON A TRUE STORY. Sometimes a movie can very well depict the real happenings of a life (Antwone Fisher), often a film takes several artistic liberties (JFK, Nixon), other times that disclaimer is complete bullshit (Hostel, Fargo, The Blair Witch Project). But in reality, I could care less.

Having said that, it makes no difference to me that The Soloist is based on the real relationship of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, and homeless schizophrenic genius Nathaniel Ayers Jr. The story itself is fascinating, how a guy stretching for a story literally stumbles upon a raggedy man plucking at his two-stringed violin. But in depicting that to the screen, it tends to falter a little.

Don’t blame the actors. Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx are both brilliant in their respective roles. Foxx does a good job with a tough role as the deeply conflicted Ayers. There are several scenes in which we hear the voices rumpling through his head, and Foxx is such a good actor that we actually think he’s hearing those voices. His character goes on exasperated Rain Man-like tirades that are not only convincing but appealing as well.

But the real show stopper here is Downey. In yet another great role (I can’t think of a bad one), Downey embodies his character. He never forces the tender moments, never stretches for that high-epitome that always happens in films that are “based on a true story”. Instead, Downey plays Lopez with restrained conviction. In short, he’s the best part of the movie.

Sadly, talented British director Joe Wright (Atonement) has a little trouble finding his narrative. There are several sequences in the film that feel misguided and overused. Take for example the extended scene in which wild flashes of colors fill the screen to the harmony of an orchestra. I understand what Wright is trying to do, showing us how Ayers visualizes music in bright, vast motions across a black background. But the sequence simply doesn’t fit, in fact, you’ll find it a convenient time to glance at your watch. There are other scenes too. One involving a CG tracking shot of birds flying (WOW!), another with Lopez’s editor (Catherine Keener) getting shitfaced in front of the Mayor at a fancy banquet (but why? Does her character have a drinking problem? I have no idea), and so on.

Maybe I’m being nitpicky, because honestly, the movie isn’t that bad. The performances will grab you and that is usually enough to enjoy yourself at the movies these days. But after boasting a killer trailer, I was just hoping for a little more. It’s clear why this was pushed back from its original, Oscar-friendly November 2008 release date. The studio probably watched it, saw that it wasn’t going to get any Oscar nominations and decided to conveniently release it in the worst possible season for movies. I’ll recommend the film for its good moments (the subtle ending being one), regardless if it’s based on a true story. B-


  1. i've heard the Soloist does a great job raising awareness for those who are homeless who might also happen to be mentally unstable; I'd like to see it while it's still on the big screen

  2. I never thought about that before... yeah, why the heck would I care if it was based on a true story? What does that change? More than that, what do the directors/producers think they gain by stating that?

    1. Right? I think they hope to "touch" the audience by showing that "Hey, this really awful thing really happened to this really nice guy. Really."

      This isn't to say I have it out for Based on a True Story movies. I just think it is played up so much as a marketing ploy. And the fact that (most) directors use the disclaimer so liberally now just ruins its proposed effect.

    2. Okey, but it isn't more disturbing to know that The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are based on actual true stories?

    3. Oh for sure, but they are loosely based on a true story. For example, the man who inspired Leatherface also inspired Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill. So, pretty loose interpretations there.