Joe Wright, the fastidious stylist behind Atonement, is prone to frustrating tendencies that are ascendant in The Soloist, an emotionally tone deaf and, typical of the director, gimmick-laden and aggressively polished adaptation of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez’s memoir chronicling his friendship with talented but crippled-by-schizophrenia street musician Nathaniel Ayers. Initially a relationship based on business, with Lopez (a typically game and open-faced Robert Downey Jr.) encountering the fragile violinist Ayers (Jamie Foxx) in a dangerous highway underpass where road-ragers practically spell his impending doom, and perking up at Ayers’s column-worthy mention of having been a Julliard student before “a few setbacks,” the jaded journo is soon moved to accept quasi-guardianship of the wilting-rose-in-L.A.’s-concrete out of sheer empathy for his perceived hopelessness, succinctly conveyed when he asks if Lopez is piloting a jet that passes over both of their heads. The nearly inscrutable Ayers, who thinks he’s in communion with Beethoven’s spirit and hugs a junk-filled cart close to his person at all times like a baby’s blanket, is made less approachable the longer the film goes on by Wright’s choice to present him in a series of increasingly rococo outfits, culminating in a cartoonish Uncle Sam getup, complete with “whiteface”—a decision that so freezes audience-identification in its tracks that, even if true-to-life, is a dramatic mistake.
Equally unengaging is Wright’s presentation of Lopez’s relationship with Mary (Catherine Keener), an invented character who is both his ball-busting Times colleague and his shoulder-to-cry-on ex-wife, alternating between guises on a dime as each scene demands and occasionally referencing an estranged, off-screen son whose absence fuels Lopez’s quixotic determination to change Ayers’s circumstance, first by baiting him toward the safety of a shelter with the gift of a cello and then pairing him up with blow-dried music coach Graham Claydon (Tom Hollander) to test the validity of the film’s Lifetime movie-appropriate conceit that the healing-power combo of love and music can cure a severe mental impairment. Lopez’s futile attempts to restore a semblance of recognizable humanity to the alternatively lost-in-space and tantrum-throwing Ayers, who at one point refuses a gift of an apartment out of an aversion to walls, are never punctuated by emotional wallops either in the form of unexpected reversals in Ayers’s condition or in a flickering of brotherhood between the two, instead droning on as an endlessly business-casual, clinical slog toward the goal of improving one man’s mental health.
What should be the film’s most dramatically cutting passage, a lengthy flashback to the onset and relentless tightening of Ayers’s dementia, which coincides with his unlikely acceptance at Julliard, lands with a double-thud of screenwriting 101 conventions and generous helpings of Wright’s surface-level mechanics, his swooping and gliding cameras randomly tracking city streets and snaking through homes at will, his attention clearly more focused on approximating the look and sweep of a polished, Oscar-caliber drama than devoting the time and energy to digging toward any truths relatable to his characters’ conditions. The parade of artifice ultimately hits its crescendo with a typically Wrightist, look-at-me diversion, a several-minutes-long sojourn directly into the musical mind’s-eye of Ayers that recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey’s spacewarp sequence, though here the multihued shards of light twanging their way toward us are less evocative of aural transcendence than they are reminiscent of an old-fashioned computer screensaver. Signifying nothing, the device simply eats up a few minutes and makes for just another of the film’s uninvolving, time-marking episodes.
The print is sparkling, with lush color levels and deep blacks and no instances of edge enhancement, but shadow delineation is questionable and skin tones are on the pasty side. And from Mr. Ayers's lunatic head trips to the L.A. traffic that perpetually envelops him, the surround sound is subtly but deeply immersive.
This is surely among the most self-congratulatory extras ever amassed for a major DVD release: a snippy commentary track by Joe Wright that begins with the director likening the wheels of a bicycle to the inner workings of the brain (how our cerebellum operates is, apparently, the point of the movie) and admonishing the way one of his extras threw newspapers; a making-of featurette in which the film's producers applaud themselves for being moved by Steve Lopez's original column about Nathaniel Ayers and their wanting to adapt the story into a movie; a featurette on homelessness in Los Angeles, just in case you aren't convinced of the filmmakers' devotion to the issue; a featurette with the real Lopez and Ayers that mostly serves as proof of how Hollywood misrepresents reality; and a well-meaning animated short ("Beth's Story") about a white girl who loses her parents, then her apartment after she can't pay her medical bills, that isn't about poor health insurance in this country but how every homeless person has "a story." Rounding out the disc: five deleted scenes and a bunch of previews.
From the fidgety lead performances to the seemingly Ron Howard-inspired aesthetic, The Soloist, like all of Joe Wright’s work, is rife with bad choices.