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The Soloist Is a Pitch Perfect Portrayal of Grace

  • Christa Banister Contributing Writer
  • Updated Aug 07, 2009
<i>The Soloist</i> Is a Pitch Perfect Portrayal of Grace

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


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.

What give the story an even deeper emotional resonance, however, are the over-arching, rich themes of the seemingly foolish confounding the wise, the real, everyday plight of Los Angeles’ homeless and the power of grace and friendship. Without a single cheesy line about Nathaniel ultimately teaching and helping Steve (even though Steve has also given Nathaniel a second chance), the audience is actually given a little credit because we’re shown that throughout the course of the amazing story—rather than told. And not opting for the easy way out writing-wise has many rewards. Not only is The Soloist not shaw-shanky in the least, but it’ll entertain and inspire with its pitch-perfect portrayal of redemption between an unlikely duo. And for Christians and otherwise, it’s also a powerful reminder that authenticity and not bailing when the going gets tough is always the best way to live.


  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Some social drinking, plus depictions of alcohol and drug abuse in the homeless community.
  • Language/Profanity:  Some course language, although not pervasive, including instances where the Lord’s name is taken in vain.
  • Sex/Nudity:  None.
  • Violence:  The movie is honest in its portrayal of the plight of homeless people in a place like L.A. Fighting, drug use and muggings are just part of everyday life. There’s also a couple of scenes where Nathaniel’s mental illness causes him to snap—and lash out, first at his mother, then at Steve later on.


Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.