Friday, May 15, 2009


Two of our finest film actors—Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx—playing “real” people in a film based on a true story. The possibilities for greatness are almost guaranteed. And, for the most part, THE SOLOIST doesn’t disappoint.

There are things I can criticize and will. Like Catherine Keener in the role of Downey’s character's (Steve Lopez) ex-wife. She can be terrific (playing Harper Lee in CAPOTE for one) but for my taste is miscast in this role. It’s kind of a thankless one in a way, the female foil to Downey’s virtuoso (another one among many) performance. But it’s definitely partly on her because there are few times in this film when things feel way too generic and most of those times are the scenes she’s in.

The director, Joe Wright, proved his mastery with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and, for my taste, especially with ATONEMENT. In THE SOLOIST he at times soars, visualizing the power of the music (Beethoven’s) that is at the heart of this flick in ways that work so well I feel like it may be the first time the power of classical music has truly been captured visually (though he falls flat in one scene where he tries to project that power through amorphous colored shapes, sort of a “psychedelic light show” version of what Disney did in that scene in FANTASIA where the music is shown as sharper edged brightly colored abstract shapes).

Foxx plays the showy role of the musical genius (Nathaniel Ayers) beset by mental demons with some restraint, and Wright visualizes his bouts with inner voices successfully, more so than I’ve seen that done before (with the caveat that for an African-American boy raised in an African-American family and household and neighborhood (according to flashback scenes) it seems odd that almost all the voices in his head are as “white” sounding as a WASPy commercial announcer).

But Downey is the one who carries and balances and grounds the film. He’s such a master of the film acting craft he makes most other actors seem almost phony in comparison. Though there are some erratic mood and personality shifts from scene to scene that aren’t entirely justified by what preceded them (maybe the fault of Susannah Grant who adapted Steve Lopez’s book, though her previous credits include ERIN BROKOVITCH which sustained the story very well, so who knows what’s to blame).

The homeless people Wright hired to play themselves add an element of reality that also grounds and balances the movie. But the one cast member who stood out the most for me was Lisagay Hamilton as Foxx’s character’s sister. She only had a handful of scenes but she elevated them emotionally and artistically. (Nelsan Ellis as the director of the LAMP homeless center was also a stand out.)

It’s a movie worth seeing and a story worth thinking about.

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