A case for ‘The Soloist’: this movie deserved its original release date

04.24.09 9 years ago

Alex J. Berliner/Berliner Studio/BEImages

Like an anxious high school senior class thinking they’ll never see these people again, this town can be harsh and judgmental when it has no right to be.  A big movie moves its release date at the last minute?  Oh, something must be wrong, it must not play, it’s a misfire, it doesn’t work.  All scuttlebutt heard on cellphone to E-mail to instant to messages across Hollywood. 

Granted, there is a lot of history to back this line of thinking up.  “All the King’s Men” and “The Life of David Gale” are two former Oscar bait pictures eventually dumped that immediately come to mind.  So, when Paramount announced last October that the Joe Wright’s inspirational drama “The Soloist,” starring Robert “I’m edging out Johnny Depp as the hottest star in town”  Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx, was moving out of its November release date to a spring 2009 date, eyes rolled across the 323.  Especially as it was only a few weeks before the picture was set to open the city’s increasingly prestigious AFI Film Festival. “Guess it wasn’t a true awards contender, huh?”

Other whispers from those who claimed to have seen it described Jamie Foxx’s performance as mentally challenged homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers as “mannered” and “laughable” to test audiences. Or that any thought Robert Downey, Jr. would really be in the best actor race for his portrayal of real-life Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez was wishful thinking.  He was good, but not that good. Meanwhile, word leaked that the exiting DreamWorks team (on their way to their new home at Universal er, Disney) were very upset at the last minute move.  And it turns out, they had a right to be.

Why Paramount really decided to movie “The Soloist” is probably a nice chapter in the book about the 3-year Paramount/DreamWorks “partnership,”  but the strength of both Fox and Downey, Jr.’s stellar performances that have been reflected in the positive reviews so far are no doubt the key.  (Couldn’t have anything getting in the way of Mr. Pitt’s potential nod for “Benjamin Button,” could we?)  And, even more sadly, “The Soloist” is not the big commercial feel-good movie the film’s TV spots are portraying it as.  The film is much more in the art house vein and probably would have been better served with the original winter release date and a staggered run benefiting from critical love for the performances.  Instead, the picture is going wide in only 2,000 runs (some would call that a dump) and be lucky to get over $10 million in its opening weekend, destined to be discovered on HBO or whatever Paramount’s new premium cable network is going to be called.

Originally a series of entries in Lopez’s Points West column, the chronicling of the author’s relationship with Ayers, a former Juilliard School student, became so popular that Lopez eventually complied the stories into a best selling book.  While the film takes some liberties with the true life events (Lopez has a fine relationship with his wife for example), it remains honest to the spirit of the friendship the men still have. 

Wright, the fast-rising talent behind “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement,” is an impressive visualist mind who seems to bring out the best in his actors (you can argue he’s the only filmmaker who can pull a believable performance from Keira Knightley).  I spoke to him at the film’s premiere earlier this week and asked him why a man with so much experience in British period pieces (a world he’s returning to with his next film “Indian Summer”) would take on this contemporary Los Angeles tale?  He says he as intrigued by the story, but it was meeting both Lopez and Ayers that sealed the deal.

Wright says, “Steve took me on a walk downtown and there I met some equally extraordinary people down there and I felt I wanted to make a film with their participation and that maybe other directors may not do that and it was my responsibility too.”

There are far too many filmmakers who would be scared to focus the camera on the real, non-photogenic and mentally unstable homeless people that surround Ayers today.  It may make audiences squirm in their seats, but their inclusion brings the film an integrity other true life stories hollywood depicts often lack.

I also found a few minutes to chat with the Lopez himself, a journalists whose non-industry beat must have sheltered him from the negative buzz last year.  He seems quite happy with the results. Especially after what the producers promised him when they first met about the project.

“There have been a lot of times in Hollywood where the original plan got screwed up one way or another, but what is up on the screen is the movie they said they were going to make three years ago,” Lopez told me. “They were true to the essence of the friendship and it’s got all those messages of hope and courage and passion.  All of those are in the book and they have faithfully presented that in a way that people may change the way they go forth as citizens of the world.”

As a former consultant to the Times myself (during the shooting of “The Soloist” in fact), one of the most intriguing aspects of the movie was how blunt it is about the layoffs currently going on at the paper.  Wright does an excellent job showing the increasingly bleak picture in the paper’s newsroom.  I asked Lopez if he was surprised the theme was so prevalent within the movie.

“Yes, when I’m watching this its bittersweet, because it’s both a celebration and a lament,” Lopez says. “I look at the papers rolling off the presses and I think, ‘Yes! We’re still printing it.’  That’s what I think when I when see the opening scenes, but by the end of the movie the desks are emptying out and I’m like, ‘Omigod, that’s the reality of it.'”

Then, impassioned, Lopez adds, “But this is a story that I might not have been done if I’d met Nathaniel today.  It took an investment of a lot of time and the LA Times won a Pulitzer today and was a finalist in two categories.  A great boost  in the newsroom, but I’m not sure the Times would have had the resources to back me up if I’d just met Nathaniel today.”

And beyond the ultimate fate of “The Soloist” or the real Nathaniel Ayers, that might be the biggest tragedy of all.

“The Soloist” is now playing nationwide.

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