Dir: Joe Wright
Forget booze, pills, coke, smack and crack. The worst drug in Hollywood is the Prestige Picture. Any legitimate dramatic actor drools at the very notion of being polished, highbrow film to be released in the latter seasons of the year — just recent enough so Academy voters will remember it in time for the Oscars. While some of these films are worthwhile (studios tend to schedule anything they think has a chance), others are just cloying Oscar Bait seemingly made to win awards. It took David Fincher away from the Interesting, Important Filmmaker’s Club, and soon it will gun for your favorites.
The Soloist might be such a film. It’s a touching Issue Film about the state of homelessness in Los Angeles. It’s based-on-a-true-story dramatic fodder for Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx to act at until a Golden Statue lands in their hands. It’s also been strangely orphaned, having its release date moved from Oscar season to April in a show of no confidence.
What is the fate of a Prestige Picture that comes out in the spring?
As a viewing experience, The Soloist holds up relatively well. The story — Robert Downey Jr meets homeless musician Jamie Foxx, finds out he used to go to Juilliard until schizophrenia took hold, tries to help him out — is the sort of thing that tugs on heartstrings and presents an important issue to Old White People (aka The Academy). It might have won awards had one of the characters died or Jamie Foxx was retarded, but that’s not what happened in real life and you have to adhere to the broad strokes.
Downey Jr fares as well as much as you’d expect Downey Jr to fare: he holds the film together by Downey Junioring his way through it. Don’t you dare try to take away Robert Downey Jr from me. Wisely, the film spends only minimal time on writer Steve Lopez’s personal life — just enough that we’re inclined to care about him (other than the way we normally love Downey Jr) but not so much that Foxx comes off as your average Magic Black Man who helps out the Benevolent White Man as much as the Benevolent White Man helps out him.
Foxx’s Nathaniel Ayers is the bane of the film, a fatal flaw considering that (to reiterate) he’s the subject of the damned thing. Foxx isn’t to blame — he plays quirkily crazy great but stops being believable when he’s required to be tearily dramatic — but the film often plays him for laughs by having him dressed in a mélange of Halloween leftovers. To suddenly cut from one scene to Foxx dressed in an Uncle Sam costume with white pancake makeup on his face only works to reduce the character to a joke in what’s meant to be an Important Issue Film. I didn’t laugh, but all the older white people did.
This isn’t a “the movie is different like the book” complaint, but a cursory Googling will show photos of the real-life Ayers dressing far more conservatively compared to his cinematic counterpart. Why, then, is Foxx dressed so gaudily? Obviously it paints him as an Other, but is it really all that hard to identify a homeless person? Isn’t the schizophrenia enough? What the hell was Joe Wright thinking?
Between The Soloist and his previous effort, Atonement, Wright continues to prove he is an immensely talented director. Teamed up with Atonement cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, they end up creating some beautiful shots, like the refraining depictions of the printing press at work, reminiscent of the typewriter-heavy soundtrack of Atonement. Unfortunately, the printing press refrain doesn’t really go anywhere. When Ayers witnesses an orchestra at work, the film boldly enters an extended sequence depicting his Fantasia-like synesthesia with flashing, waving lights moving to the sound of the music.
Unfortunately, Wright is mired in the morass of the Prestige Picture. The Soloist works best as a naturalistic (I might even say neorealist) affair, which keeps getting undercut by all the requirements of the pseudogenre. When Ayers plays the cello for Lopez for the first time, additional string accompaniment comes out of nowhere to inform us that this is an important moment, as string music so often does. It also doesn’t help when the film indulges itself with a crane shot slowly rising over Los Angeles to further convince us that yes, this is a beatific moment. It really doesn’t help in said shot when you have birds fly across the screen.
While it’s unfair to criticize an artistic endeavor (or the artist who undertakes it) for what it is not rather than for what it is, I watch the work of Wright and see a potentially interesting filmmaker being paid to try to win awards. All it takes is to notice things like technically beautiful four-minute tracking shot in Atonement or naturalistic bits of The Soloist and see that Wright is on to something. It’s not what he isn’t, but what he could be. All it would take is the death of the Prestige Picture.
by Danny Djeljosevic