The previews for Joe Wright‘s The Soloist were good enough to get me in the theater on opening night. Two of my favorite actors, a visionary (if exhibitionist) young director, and what looked to be a moving story about friendship and grace. Instead, Wright gives us an unflinching look into the dark corners of the human psyche, at the hopelessness and madness lurking in so many alleys and minds.
Craft-wise, the film excels with impeccable sound design (a Wright trademark), cinematography, and two gut-wrenching performances from Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. The movie is unique in that it speaks its own language, both literally in its dialogue and narratively in its presentation. You’ll sense this within the first five minutes, and combined with Foxx and RDJ, it’s enough to keep you watching til the final reel.
But the screenplay is another story, lacking any sense of meaning, arc, or heart. The real-life musician Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Foxx) drops out of Juliard after a mental breakdown, and winds up homeless on the streets of L.A., where real-life reporter Steve Lopez (RDJ) discovers him and tries to give Ayers a better life.
But the screenplay’s conclusion is that no amount of love, sacrifice, or talent can make a difference. Neither in regard to the urban homeless epidemic, nor the tortured minds of schizo-phrenics like Ayers. Maybe the movie’s right, but it leaves a hopeless, borderline nihilistic taste in the mouth.
That said, there are moments in The Soloist that will move, lift, and shatter you. One musical sequence uses visual effects to create the closest approximation to the experience of synesthesia I’ve ever seen (and I’m a synesthete). Some of Foxx’s scenes with RDJ will likely move you to tears, but often for the wrong reasons. You’re being emotionally manipulated by the not-so-subtle exploitation of a mentally-ill homeless man.
Is The Soloist worth seeing? Yes, if you alter your expectations from what the previews led you to believe, and if you like auteurish directors with stylistic flair. But honestly? The preview is better than the real thing.