It’s usually a bad sign when a seemingly perfect meeting of Hollywood talent and inspirational subject-matter gets pushed from a plush Oscar-friendly release date to the following April, a minefield of post Winter, pre-Summer sludge doomed to mainstream inconsequence. This dynamic shift happened to Joe Wright’s much hyped The Soloist, a formulaic mess about a mentally ill homeless man/genius cello player (Jamie Foxx) and his friendship with an L.A. Times reporter (Robert Downey Jr.). The lack of confidence by its studio is completely understandable after seeing the disjointed, bloated final product. But coming on the heels of Atonement, Wright’s overrated Academy Award darling, the failures of The Soloist are not at all surprising, since both films suffer from the same lack of coherent focus in the story.
Atonement skates by viewers with a false whimsey and incredible camera movements, masking the simplistic love story underneath. However, The Soloist doesn’t have period piece settings or war time melodrama to hide its faults, and the relationship between the two leads suffers under the pressure of fitting a potentially complex and circular story into a square biopic model. Also, Wright has an embattled sense of pacing here, playing small moments up as if they were crucially important, only to throw away the earned momentum on standard outbreaks of emotion at the expected moments of tension. Foxx does crazy well, basically a ticking time bomb version of Ray Charles, and Downey, Jr. tirelessly pities himself until the “one moment” where he realizes it’s not all about him. The overall inspired performances can’t save a story that has nothing substantial to say about the complexities of their relationship. The Soloist is that dime a dozen Hollywood film that should work, but for innumerable reasons falls flat on its face, most notably because of a righteous self-importance toward the homelessness issue, worst on display in Wright’s hollow and thoughtless construction of Skid Row as a slow motion jumble of colors, screams, and beatings, something akin to Michael Bay massacring a scene from The Wire.