Most bad movies know they’re bad — it’s not always fun to pick on them, since it’s like calling Perez Hilton a cultural terrorist. He knows it, celebrates it, and greedily collects his money in spite of it. But every once in a while, a bad movie that actually thinks it’s great comes along, and it feels nice to use this little corner of the interwebs to tell that movie to pulls its nose out of the sky and put it back where it belong — halfway up its own ass. The Soloist is that kind of film - decidedly mediocre but so arrogant and confident about the intended message it’s peddling that it forgets to wrap it around some actual substance. Indeed, The Soloist is a movie designed for well-off white people who carry their NPR tote bags into the theater and assuage their liberal guilt, not by contributing to the homeless, but by giving money to a studio that hires a millionaire to pretend to be homeless. Liberal guilt properly assuaged, the well-off white person can go home, drink their Trader Joes’ wine, and watch Bride Wars without any remorse.
The Soloist is based on the real-life friendship between a schizophrenic homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) and an L.A. Times’ columnist, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), who wrote a series of columns about Ayers in 2005. Lopez, one of those human-interest columnists who waxes philosophical about his own bicycle accidents to fill copy space, discovered Ayers in Pershing Square playing a violin with only two strings. During the course of their conversation, Lopez learned that Ayers had dropped out of Julliard after two years and thus decided to make his Ayers’ struggles one of his human interest pieces. Ayers had some seriously mental illness problems, which are never entirely explained in the film, but resulted in a mental breakdown that led to his departure from Julliard (although it’s not mentioned in the film, Ayers was subsequently institutionalized and even underwent electroshock therapy). The column hit a nerve with the L.A. Times’ readership (apparently, there are a lot of NPR listeners out in L.A.), so much so that an arthritic old lady decided to give her cello to Ayers, a gesture that allowed Lopez to write another column. And then another when Lopez got Ayers in to watch a symphony rehearsal. And another when Ayers has another mental breakdown during an outdoor performance for rich white people. And another when Lopez has his own problems coping with Ayers’ idol worship of him. And then another … you get the point (Lopez would later write a book about this friendship, a book that many of your well-meaning NPR-listening parents bought you for Christmas one year. I have two unread copies sitting on my shelf.)
There’s something to be said for scriptwriter Susannah Grant’s (Catch and Release, Erin Brockovich) decision not to force the narrative into the Hollywood feel-good movie formula, but the unfortunate side effect is that The Soloist feels aimless, wandering from one point to another in Lopez’s and Ayers’ friendship without any real destination in mind. It’s flat - there’s no narrative arc, just a series of episodic events which don’t amount to much. Worse still are the numerous strands of subplot — the death of the newspaper industry, Lopez’s struggle with yard pests, the homeless problem in L.A., the pointless flashbacks into Ayers’ childhood (which reveal nothing) and the relationship between Lopez and his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) — which are introduced but never fully explored or resolved. Even as context, they add little to the story.
Unexpectedly, even the actressin’ is substandard. Jamie Foxx’s performance is most embarrassing - a series of tics and pointless stream-of-consciousness soliloquies which give the impression that Foxx isn’t inhabiting a character as much as he’s trying to earn gold statues (The Soloist was originally scheduled for release during awards season). But there’s no soul in the character — just a bad version of dead-eyed Rain Main cellist. Downey, Jr. - who is usually invigorating, lively presence even in his worst movies - sleeps through this one, drowsily miming self pity and tortured reflection, allowing his grey-flecked beard to do most of the work. Catherine Keener is a blip in the film, though she seemed like the only one who cared enough to show up, while Stephen Root - as a colleague at the L.A. Times — probably shouldn’t have, since his role was completely extraneous.
But the root of the bland mediocrity that underlies all of The Soloist (except for the occasionally moving score) is the director, Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), who fritters away his assembled talent and the modest potential of the story with a large, heavy-handed ham fist that he pounds onto the table of every scene, demanding that his audience ravenously bite a chunk out of it. He turns what could’ve been a moving story about an unlikely friendship filled with beautiful music into a self-important melodrama about … about … I don’t know. The Soloist isn’t about anything, really, it just thinks that it is. And its worse sin is that it demands that its audience think it is, too. And if a movie is going to exploit my vulnerable liberal white guilt, I at least want results, a goddamn payoff of some sort, and not just an unsubtle reminder, after the movie has faded to black, that there are “90,000 homeless people living in L.A.” It’s a bummer statistic, but what it really had to do with the friendship of Ayers and Lopez, I’m not quite sure. I don’t think Joe Wright knows, either. But when you can’t create a film with real emotional truth, there’s always Wikitruth to fall back on.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.