DVD Release Date:  August 4, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  April 24, 2009
Rating:  PG-13 (for thematic elements, some drug use and language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  109 min.
Director:  Joe Wright
Actors:  Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Tom Hallander, Rachael Harris, Stephen Root

Shaw-shanky.

For the uninitiated, that’s an adjective coined by my hubby for movies like 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption—flicks that are intentionally designed to say something “important” by tugging and tugging on an audience’s heartstrings.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m all in for a good cry if a story really moves me. And just to demonstrate that it really doesn’t take much but some genuine emotion (and good acting definitely helps, too), I’ll fully admit to tearing up several times during significantly lighter fare like Jerry Maguire.

See, Cameron Crowe—the writer behind Jerry Maguire—ultimately knows that what differentiates a shaw-shanky movie from a non-shaw-shanky one is the screenplay. Oftentimes the writers behind a shaw-shanky movie try a little too hard to illicit the waterworks. Then instead of rendering something genuinely emotional, it often comes across as manipulative, even schmaltzy. In addition to relying on a truckload of trite platitudes and having all the life lessons predictably tied up in a perfect bow by the time the credits roll, the musical score will also drive said points home with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. In one word: Ick.

Given the number of people I’ve talked to over the years who’d proudly declare The Shawshank Redemption as their favorite movie though, it seems that any given film’s shaw-shankiness is ultimately subjective. And why I even bring all this up in the first place is because The Soloist had all the makings of something truly shaw-shanky. Not only was its release date bumped from summer of last year (which is usually not a particularly good sign of a movie’s quality), but it’s a heartfelt, human interest story ripped from real-life headlines with a musical undercurrent to boot. And when a L.A. Times columnist’s life intersects with that of an eccentric, homeless man who hears voices in his head and can play the cello like nobody’s business, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize the story’s “big-message,” shaw-shanky potential.

Like I said before, though, a stellar screenplay—not to mention great casting—makes a significant difference, and The Soloist has both in spades. As the aforementioned columnist, Robert Downey Jr. hits all the right notes (with his trademark cynical flare) as Steve Lopez, a newsman with people as his primary beat. In fact, his stories hit so many of the right notes that the fan mail regularly pours in. But for all that Steve knows about people, his own life is a lonely one. Divorced from his wife Mary, who works with him, and estranged from his college-age son, Steve’s biggest concern when he’s not crafting heartfelt prose is distracting the raccoons in his yard with the urine of coyotes—a tip from his neighbor.

A chance encounter with a homeless man named Nathaniel (Jamie Foxx), who happens to be a musical prodigy, ends up drastically changing his perspective—and providing a greater reason for living than simply for his own desires. Again because it’s Downey Jr. in this role, it works because he conveys a wide range of emotions so well, whether it’s sheer annoyance when Nathaniel insists on dragging his shopping cart full of junk everywhere they go or utter failure when Nathaniel eventually turns on him. And much like 2007’s Reign Over Me with Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler, the friendship forged between Steve and Nathaniel is portrayed in all of its triumphant, messy glory, giving a sympathetic yet realistic portrayal of dealing with mental illness.