The Soloist is the great award hope from last year that never happened. Originally slated to open in late November, just in time for Academy Award balloteering, the film sounds like sure fire Oscar bait—between them co-stars Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr have two nominations and one Best Actor win and director Joe Wright a BAFTA contender—but at the last minute the movie was shuffled to an April release, and very likely, out of Oscar consideration.
The film is based on the true story of Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a musical prodigy who developed schizophrenia during his second year at Juilliard School, and wound up living on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Robert Downey Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a disenchanted Los Angeles Times columnist who discovers Ayers and bases a series of columns on Ayers and his life. Over time they form a friendship based on the liberating power of music.
On paper this sounds like a sure Oscar bet. The Academy loves redemption stories, bio pics and big names in dramas, but, as any bookie can tell you, there’s no such thing as a sure bet. The Soloist is a non-traditional biography that suffers from Wright’s focus on style over story.
It’s a great looking film. Wright loads the screen with artful pictures and stylish flourishes such as a symphony of color that fills the screen when Nathaniel listens to a live symphony orchestra, but it often feels like more thought was given to the movie’s technique than to the story. Wright is clearly in love with the film’s style, I just wish he had loved the characters as much.
Although it’s based on a complex and interesting relationship between these two very different men, the movie feels padded. It’s not trite, it just doesn’t get very far past the main thrust that music has the power to transform everyone, no matter what your station in life. It is one idea stretched to 105 minutes.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have some nice, interesting moments. There’s good interplay between Downey Jr and Catherine Keener as his ex-wife and current boss and Foxx has thrown vanity out the window in an unpredictable performance that veers between sweet and menacing. It’s a brave, but not completely successful performance. Ditto Downey Jr. Both actors are riding the razor’s edge of emotion here, and both occasionally go overboard, as if they are fighting to be noticed amid the movie’s overwhelming stylistic affectations.
The Soloist is an art film disguised as an uplifting drama, and is only partially successful on both counts.
Mark Twain understood basing stories on real events wouldn’t necessarily mean a tale couldn’t have its own flights of fancy.
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” he said, “but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”
In simpler terms he means that just because something is far fetched doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. For example, if a screenwriter came up with the colourful idea that a homeless man, dressed like a superhero was a musical genius who believed Beethoven was the “leader of Los Angeles” you’d scream “Codswallop!” That is until you see the real life account of Nathaniel Ayers, subject of The Soloist, in theatres this week.
What did Ayers, a schizophrenic man with a larger than life personality, think of Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of him? He was, said Mr. Ayers, “a good Nathaniel.”
Another real life character, John Wojtowicz, who robbed a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation, earned $7,500 for the movie rights for his outlandish story. The resulting movie, Dog Day Afternoon, only got 30 per cent of the facts right, Wojtowicz said, but he added that “Al Pacino’s performance has to be called ‘out of sight…’ his characterization was flawless.”
Of course some movies don’t even get 30 per cent of the story right.
Who could forget Morgan Freeman as Joe Clark, Lean on Me’s tyrannical high school principal? On screen armed with a bullhorn and determination he led the rowdy students of New Jersey’s Eastside High School to their highest test scores ever. It was an inspirational movie, but the real life story isn’t quite as stirring. Screenwriters kept the extraordinary aspects of Clark’s story — his use of bullhorns in class and penchant for extreme discipline — but inflated his accomplishments. Despite his notable efforts, test scores didn’t go up.
When asked about the exaggerations in the “based on a true story” account of his life Clark said, “It’s entertainment. And the design of entertainment is to make people happy. There’s enough sadness in one’s life. Once in a while you must extract a reasonable facsimile of glee, as factitious as it may be.”
Sometimes, in the “design of entertainment” the words “Based on a True Story” are completely meaningless. In its opening credits Fargo claimed to be a true story, but it’s actually not. Why make claims to realism then? “If an audience believes that something’s based on a real event,” said co-director Joel Coen, “it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.”