Combustible Celluloid
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With: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, Tom Hollander, Rachael Harris, Nelsan Ellis, Justin Martin, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Michael Bunin, David Jean Thomas
Written by: Susannah Grant, based on a book by Steve Lopez
Directed by: Joe Wright
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language
Running Time: 109
Date: 04/24/2009

The Soloist (2009)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Cello Journalism

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Last year Paramount pulled its awards-season release of The Soloist and instead announced a release for this April. I think I understand now why they did that. At first glance, this is a blatant Oscar-mongering work, with a show-off performance by Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx as a homeless, mentally ill, musical prodigy. If it had been released in December among all the other award contenders, critics surely would have skewered it. But here in April, with nothing else around like it for miles, we can now see The Soloist with clear eyes. It's a film that deftly, intelligently avoids all the typical Oscar-mongering guck, sidestepping all the predictable elements at nearly every turn. Robert Downey Jr. stars as Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez, who overhears the beautiful violin music of Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx) and learns that he was once a Julliard student. Lopez does a column on Ayers and inadvertently begins a longtime friendship with him. A woman reads the column and donates her cello, and Lopez must organize a place for Ayers to play it so that it doesn't get stolen on the streets. That leads them to LAMP and more columns, then to some concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (I was sure that the denizens at LAMP would become a cutesy little pack of colorful supporting characters, but they don't.) There are squabbles and arguments, and second thoughts by Lopez, who isn't sure he wants the responsibility of being Ayers' one connection to life. Based on Lopez's book, the movie focuses mainly on the writer and his life, with Ayers as more of a supporter. It even includes a few totally unconnected interludes, just for flavor, which any lesser film would have cut out: a bicycle accident and an infestation of backyard raccoons. Downey is mesmerizing, as usual, doing more with less and perfectly matching Foxx's much juicier role. I was shocked to learn that this film had been created by two serial Oscar-mongers: director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice and Atonement) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), both moving beyond blatant award-lust and into something more honestly touching. Catherine Keener is equally excellent as Lopez' editor and ex-wife.

DVD Details: I will be the first to admit that I wildly overrated this movie; not a week after I wrote this review, I came to realize that it was, indeed, a couple of extremely good performances supporting a just-OK movie. The new DVD from Paramount, however, would have you believe that the movie is a good deal more important than even I suggested. It has little featurettes about the true story, being nice to homeless people and other similar stuff. Director Wright provides a commentary track, and there are deleted scenes. Best of all is a selection of previews, including one for Martin Scorsese's upcoming Shutter Island.

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