I'll be honest: I had concerns. I signed up to review Joe Wright's third film, The Soloist, last summer. Then the film's late-fall, Oscar-buzz release slot was bumped up into the fallow month of April to allow the studio to focus its award campaigning on other (better?) movies; in the movie biz, we call that a Bad Omen. And then came the trailer, itself loaded with so much sugary sweetness and saccharine sentimentality, the prospect of sitting through the full two-hour movie began to seem nauseating.
I needn't—and shouldn't—have worried. Wright—who previously directed a masterful adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and the bewitching Atonement—has arrived at the point where he can officially be moved out of the Promising Young Filmmakers camp and into the Great Filmmakers camp. Stated simply: The Soloist is a remarkable movie. And the move to April turns out to be a blessing; this is a small, intimate kind of movie that deserves to be cradled and cherished, not slathered in crass award-show buzz and industry politics.
And that sugar-sweet trailer? Well, you can't blame me for being worried. The story seems like a catalyst for pure schmaltz. Robert Downey, Jr. stars as Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Jamie Foxx is Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless, mentally challenged street musician and Julliard dropout. You can fill in the rest—or at least you might think you can: Yes, Steve meets Nathanial. Yes, he becomes quite taken with him, and begins writing columns about his unusual story. Yes, the humble shames the proud, and Lopez finds his life forever changed because of his encounters with Nathaniel.
But not so fast: This isn't that kind of movie. You know, the kind where the central character has some sort of Condition, but, because of his sweet spirit and triumph over adversity, he reveals to those around him the error of their selfish, greedy ways, and their lives are turned topsy-turvy because of this one special guy. But this isn't Forest Gump, and it sure isn't Benjamin Button. This film is full of surprises, and chief among them is this: It has real weight, nuance, and complexity. While it might make you feel good, it's not a Feel-Good Movie—it's a movie with real heft.
And oh yeah: It's true.
Steve Lopez is a real guy who wrote a real book about the real Nathaniel Ayers, and much of the film's success comes from the adaptation by Susannah Grant, whose screenplay never loses sight of the fact that Nathaniel is a character—not a plot device—and that he isn't to be defined by his Condition, but by his personality, his history, his values. He's a regular guy who's fallen on some tough times, and he's just as capable of messing things up and acting like an idiot as anyone else. And that's how Foxx plays him. It's not a flashy, Oscar-bait performance, but a surprisingly understated one; he essentially mumbles his way through most of the movie, but it works.
Wright, on the other hand, is a director who's already made a reputation out of colorful, fast-paced movies that are rich in humor and romance, high in energy and cinematic flair. The Soloist is his first movie that isn't really a period piece, but it is no less transfixing; it's a film borne from a love of words and color and sound, a celebration of the beauty created by the actors and the script, the camera and the music.