I was disappointed in my two favourite critics, James Berardinelli and Roger Ebert, each of who gave "The Soloist" only 62½%.
Berardinelli says, "The Soloist is afflicted with a lack of passion. The story lacks a strong trajectory; it meanders, seemingly unsure of precisely what it wants to do and say and where it wants to go." Actually, that is the reality of schizophrenia. One never knows what is going to happen next. There are many setbacks. He also says, "The soundtrack supplies multiple, overlapping voices. The objective is to invite the viewer to participate in the unhinging of Nathaniel's mind, a first-person perspective of schizophrenia. Unfortunately, it feels artificial and contrived." I have taught seven NAMI* courses on mental illness. One episode in one of the classes involves requiring class members to perform certain simple tasks while being bombarded by random voices from behind. Many class members find that to be the most unnerving, and illuminating, of all the activities in the course.
Ebert misses the point when he says, "Yes, mental illness can be like that, but can successful drama? There comes a point when Lopez has had enough, and so, in sympathy, have we." Dealing with a mentally ill person can be devastatingly frustrating. Must we always be entertained? There is a place for grim reality in drama. Otherwise, how can we learn?
"The Soloist" is as accurate a representation of schizophrenia as you could experience without becoming mentally ill yourself. If you keep that in mind then the film will be rewarding; if, however, you are looking for a film that makes sense easily and progresses from point to point in a logical manner, then look for a different film.
If you choose to watch the film and absorb the reality of mental illness, then you will learn much. You never know when that knowledge will be of great value to you. Then again, you may be spared, and never need it.
The film introduces a very important idea: mentally ill people do better if there is someone, whom they trust, who takes an abiding interest in them.
It also poses one very important question: should mentally ill persons be forced to take medication to stabilize themselves? Different states, provinces and countries have different laws concerning this. Some feel that mentally ill persons should be forced to take medication if and only if they are likely to harm themselves or others. Mentally ill persons are often unaware that they are mentally ill, and cannot be convinced otherwise. Would they have more freedom to decide correctly for themselves if they were first medicated until they become sane? The film addresses this question but does not attempt to give a definitive answer. You will have to think out that question yourself, keeping in mind that different people have different reactions to the same medication. There is no universal answer, but for each individual, there is probably a best answer but not necessarily a good one.
The film captivated me from the beginning to the end. I did not miss the common devices that some movies use to make them exciting. There was excitement enough for me in the growth of the principal characters and in the learning that I did, and in the thinking that I was forced to do.
*NAMI is The National Alliance on Mental Illness.
P.S. Schizophrenia has absolutely nothing to do with having multiple personalities, or of dichotomies (apparent contradictions). The split in the expression "split personality" is the split between the personality and reality. Unfortunately, the word is misused far more often that it is used correctly.