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The Soloist (2009)

Paramount Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc released: 8/4/2009

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 8/2/2009

Due to my personal tastes, I don't read a lot of non-fiction, or watch many in-depth news programs. Therefore, when I watch a movie based on a true story, I rarely know more than what I've gleaned from the trailer. However, The Soloist is different. I heard an interview with writer Steve Lopez on NPR, where he described the experiences which lead to him writing a book. Having worked in a program with schizophrenics, I was very interested in the story. And despite the fact that I'd essentially heard the entire story in the interview, I was looking forward to the film. Would The Soloist live up to reality?

Robert Downey Jr. stars in The Soloist as Lopez, a writer at The Los Angeles Times who writes a human interest article entitled "Points West". While strolling through the downtown area looking for inspiration, he hears music. He comes across a man playing a violin which has only two strings. The man (Jamie Foxx) is oddly-dressed, and has all of his belongings in a shopping cart. Steve learns that the man is named Nathaniel Ayers, but it's difficult to carry on a conversation with Nathaniel. Nathaniel does mention that he attended Julliard. Steve calls Julliard and finds that it's true. It seems that Nathaniel was accepted to Julliard, but left before graduating. Steve talks to Nathaniel again, gets some information from his relatives, and writes a column about him. A generous reader sends a cello to Steve, who gives it to Nathaniel on the condition that he seek treatment at LAMP (Los Angeles Men's Project). Nathaniel reluctantly agrees, but Steve soon learns that simple bribery won't always work with this man who suffers from mental illness. Can Steve help cut through the music and help Nathaniel the person emerge?

Thanks to countless inaccurate movies, many people still think that schizophrenia means a split personality. This is wrong. Clinicians actually refer to this as dissociative identity disorder. Schizophrenia occurs when a patient isn't oriented to reality. They often hear voices, and don't see, hear, or feel the world in which most of us do. Ironically, The Soloist, a movie about a man with schizophrenia suffers from dissociative identity disorder.

On the one hand, we have the story, which is fantastic. Human interest tales of this nature are typically relegated to made-for-TV movies, but Nathaniel Ayers' tale is so unique that it deserves special attention. While there are most likely plenty of homeless who once achieved great things before hitting on hard times, the story of a young black man (from a poor background) who was accepted to Julliard in 1970 for playing the cello would be story enough. The fact that he had a psychotic break at age 22 which ended not only his education, but his time as a functioning member of society makes this into a modern-day tragedy. Here is a man who is musically gifted, but due to his illness, he has lost his way in the world. What are the odds of Lopez stumbling across him and telling his story to the world? Their interactions and friendships may border on saccharine at times, but again, it's a wonderful story, and for once, reality is much more interesting than fiction.

But, outside of the story, we have the movie, which has many problems. Director Joe Wright's Atonement won critical acclaim and apparently he felt that gave him license to be artsy here. The movie contains two scenes where a long musical passage is given a visual interpretation. One of these shown briefly may have been mildly interesting, but two lengthy ones are too much. They rob the film of valuable time where the story could be developing. The acting is also questionable. We don't get Robert Downey Jr. playing Steve Lopez, we get Robert Downey Jr. playing Robert Downey Jr. as Steve Lopez. His cocky, aloof and altogether mumbly performance doesn't resemble the real life man in any way. It's admirable that he's a flawed character, but I don't think that we ever get a taste of what Lopez is really like. As for Foxx, he plays Ayers as a savant whose symptoms are more like severe autism than schizophrenia. In the interview featured on the Disc, we can see that Ayers certainly presents odd mannerisms, he's far more lucid than the character in the film. If I were him, I'd be offended.

Can a docudrama take artistic license with a story? Sure. Sometimes, if the material is especially dry, it's necessary. However, The Soloist presents us with a story which is unique and heartwarming in its own right. All that it needed was a competent director and some qualified actors to bring it to life. What we get is a bunch of overachievers who were clearly aiming for Oscar glory and missed by a mile.

The Soloist loves Beethoven on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no overt grain and no defects from the source material. The colors look very good, most notably yellows, and the image is never too dark or bright. The level of detail is notably good and the depth is very impressive. The Disc carries a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.5 Mpbs. You would think that a movie about music would have great audio, especially with a lossless track, but you would be wrong. To be fair, the music does sound fine -- the orchestral pieces flow from the speakers and have great presence. There are a few moments of good surround sound, most notably the bikers which pass by in the opening scenes. But the dynamic range is wonky and the dialogue is incredibly difficult to hear. Given the fact that both lead actors are mumbling and you have a reason to turn on the subtitles just to follow the film.

The Soloist Blu-ray Disc houses several extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Joe Wright. "An Unlikely Friendship: Making The Soloist" (20 minutes) examines the evolution of the story from newspaper column to the screen. The producers discuss pursuing Steve Lopez and the story. From there, the cast and filmmakers talk about the production, including shooting in Los Angeles and the challenge of portraying real people. "Kindness, Courtesy and Respect: Mr. Ayers + Mr. Lopez" (5 minutes) is an interview with the real people. We get to not only see what they really look like, but we get to see what Nathaniel is like in real life. "One Size Does Not Fit All" Addressing Homelessness in Los Angeles" (10 minutes) examines the issue with comments from workers in L.A. who discuss the problem. "Juilliard: The Education of Nathaniel Ayers" (4 minutes) looks at Nathaniel's time at Juilliard, and what that experience was like. "Beth's Story" (2 minutes) is a short animated piece which looks at homelessness and incredibly depressing. The Disc contains five DELETED SCENES which run about 10 minutes. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long