In Theaters: The Soloist
The Soloist is based on Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez's unorthodox friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, a former Juilliard cello prodigy whose untreated schizophrenia led to a life on the streets of downtown L.A. That's where Lopez discovered him, playing a two-stringed violin about as well as a two-stringed violin can be played. It's a touching story, but is it a movie?
Director Joe Wright seemed to think so, choosing it as his first American project after making his name on British period dramas like Atonement and Pride & Prejudice. And while the year is only 2005, something about this also has the feel of a historical chamber drama. The titles are set to nostalgic images of newspapers being lobbed onto suburban lawns and the mechanical dinosaurs that produce them. Behold, the bygone era! Print media is crumbling. The world has seemingly stopped caring. And Steve Lopez -- played by Robert Downey Jr. with the breakneck delivery and deadpan bemusement that seems to creep into so many of his roles -- is in a sketchy downtown hospital, recovering from a nasty bike accident in Griffith Park.
The role is a tricky one: He needs to infuse what amounts to an everyman observer with something worth caring about. Not surprisingly, Downey manages to do it. Some credit (or blame, depending on how factual you like your fact-based dramas) goes to screenwriter Susannah Grant, who gives him two-foils-in-one with the introduction of a fictional ex-wife and boss. She's played by Catherine Keener, channeling the sexy, leggy editrix you just know is currently calling the shots at the Times city desk.
Taking the greatest risk here, however, is Jamie Foxx. Laden with a ridiculous, pasted-down hairstyle, a pieced-together uniform of random junk, and dialogue that frequently devolves into deranged jibberish, Foxx's Ayers still never comes across as a maudlin and inauthentic characterization. Maybe it's his background as a concert pianist, or, as he recently told Access Hollywood, his childhood fear of going crazy -- schizophrenophobia? -- the very recounting of which is kind of crazy. Whatever it was, Foxx found this guy.
So why, then, does The Soloist fail to evoke much of a response? For one, Wright isn't the most imaginative director; his strongest work comes when he simply lets the camera run as the brilliant actors he's cast do their thing. The film therefore suffers at times from his jarringly literal take. There's on over-reliance on childhood flashbacks, mental illness is depicted as a chorus of taunting voices, and the enjoyment of an L.A. Philharmonic rehearsal resembles something resembling a Mac screensaver.
But it could be simply a matter of the film falling victim to its own good intentions. There's a nagging feeling throughout that we're watching something that's been calculated to make us feel good about feeling bad. At Wright's insistence, the production shot on the real Skid Row, using 100% authentic homeless people. And while he succeeds in pulling formidable performances out of them -- they're both Greek chorus and the key to the film's emotional center -- watching them file down the red carpet at the recent premiere, we were instantly reminded of another group of disenfranchised and destitute Hollywood insta-stars: the doomed children of Slumdog Millionaire. SCORE: (Out of 10) 6.5