I confess that I was expecting to dislike this movie, but hoping to be surprised. It only mildly surprised. Having seen a number of films in which the basic plot could be summed up as "homeless person unaccountably turns out to be a musical genius"ranging from the cute in 2007's August Rush to the creepy of 2001's The Caveman's ValentineI expected that little else could be wrung from such a dirty, tattered rag of a scenario. Even given my own personal interest in the film's angle of a story-strapped journalist and the cello as the featured instrument, I was expecting to find little or no resonance. Fortunately The Soloist, while not matching the near-perfect pitch of director Joe Wright's first two features (Pride & Prejudice and Atonement), is an interesting, visually rapturous tale based on a true series of events.
Steve Lopez (the revived Robert Downey Jr.) is a columnist at the downsizing L.A. Times, who must find a compelling story in order to keep his job. When he encounters homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) playing on a two-stringed violin, he initially dismisses him as another displaced nut job. Upon learning that Ayers was once a Juilliard student, Lopez decides that an in-depth look at the undiagnosed schizophrenic's story just might be the column that keeps him on the paper's payroll. Eventually, he develops a friendship with Ayers, but the relationship begins to erode the boundaries between journalist and subject, and Lopez must learn to see the musician as a friend, not a pet project.
Employing a dual-century soundtrack, gorgeous but frequently bombastic cinematography and one of the most jarringly disingenuous portrayals of Protestantism I've ever seen, The Soloist has many things going on at once. With two very fine actors in the lead roles, the film at times feels like a jostling match to see which performance will emerge as the critics' favorite. Downey wins. As the stream-of-consciousness spewing Ayers, Foxx is fully believable but completely boring. We're given no reason to like him, and certain sympathy-inducing events his real-life counterpart sufferedsuch as electroshock therapy sessions and his mother's deathare completely passed over. Downey fares much better playing an angling journalist whose own mental machinery (heard in narration) also incoherently churns. Downey has consistently given stunning performances since his cinematic return and his work here is excellent.
Based on the nonfiction book by Steve Lopez, it's understandable that we get far more of the author's back story, his troubles with his editor/ex-wife (Catherine Keener in an excellent but all-too-infrequent showing) and even a strange sub-story involving raccoons and coyote piss. Actually, there's a lot of urine in this film, most of which ends up on the Iron Man. The real Lopez wasn't involved in the screenwriting (that duty fell to Erin Brockovich scribe Susanna Grant), but it's a shame that a film based on journalistic integrity would omit key character details, as well as rewriting others (Ayers played the less-photogenic upright bass at Juilliard). Overall, the film has many poetic moments and a visual splendor that conducts the audience past certain false notes and uneven tempos. While not a masterpiece, The Soloist is not a blemish on Wright's promising career. Rather, it's an intriguing jazz improvisation with an unpracticed band. I applaud the spirit of invention, if not the tune as a whole.