The opening scene, when Robert Downey, Jr. hurls from his bike onto the unyielding asphalt in an accident giving rise to stitches and a swollen-shut eye, is a clue: The Soloist will be harder edged than most Hollywood social problem pictures about helpers and victims. For one thing, as a helper, Downey is neither sap nor superman. He comes across as a savvy, skeptical journalist, a hipster in his Rat Pack hat genuinely drawn to the star of his prize-winning series on a homeless man, an African American who happens to be a talented classical musician.
So many things work well in The Soloist that the positives deserve to be listed. The negatives? It’s hard to think of any.
For starters in the positive column, the cast: Downey, memorable as real-life Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, infuses altruism with edginess. He brings heart and soul together with a mind that won’t stop clicking. Downey plays a balanced duet with Jamie Foxx as the troubled homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers, a one-time Juilliard student who descended into the black hole of paranoia and schizophrenia. The script is largely flawless, with entirely believable dialogue (and monologues by Ayers).
Lopez’s tone is just the right part wry and Ayers’ rushing stream of thoughts sounds as if taken directly from taped sessions. Writer Susannah Grant worked from Lopez’s columns and the book he drew from his experience with Ayers. It all rings authentic. The visualization of Ayers’ madness is effective and unsettling in flashbacks and in present tense. As a Juilliard student he began to hear voices and found himself alone in crowded rooms, terrified to be confined. Much of what he says to Lopez makes no sense, but some of his observations are profound. And when he plays his beloved Beethoven, he becomes one with the composer’s spirit and the music. He achieves a precarious state of grace. Ayers’ sickness can’t be cured by prescriptions or group therapy. Solutions aren’t simple.
Sub par acting and a cliché-ridden script could have turned The Soloist into the usual Hollywood mush, a sugarcoated cereal of milky good intentions. But much of the credit also goes to director Joe Wright, whose British historical dramas Atonement and Pride and Prejudice raised to sign of what he was capable of in The Soloist. Wright keeps out the usual Hollywood treacle Hollywood, including icky “heartwarming” music and definitive resolutions, in favor of a darker drama lit with rays of hope, humor and conscience. There are many great scenes, including Lopez’s first encounter with Ayers by hearing a thin strain of Beethoven, played on a two-string violin, wafting over a plaza overrun with gap-mouthed tourists. The flashback to Ayers’ adolescence, when a flaming car passes noiselessly past his home to represent the urban unrest of the ‘60s, is surreal and haunting.
Wright is also able to play the Lopez-Ayers story against the news of the day, including the occupation of Iraq, the catastrophe of Katrina and, especially, the decline of an LA Times gutted by stupid stockholders and greedy CEOs. A parade of laid-off journalists exits the newsroom over the course of Lopez’s series on Ayers.
Did the writer exploit his subject? If the story presented by The Soloist is true, the answer is no. Lopez gave more than an occasional hand to the homeless musician, providing him with a cello, an apartment and most of all companionship and compassion. So much for the positives of The Soloist. The negatives? Just one thing: the decision by the studio to release the film in April. Downey and Foxx deserve Oscar nominations and probably would have been considered had The Soloist been released later this year. By fall, the Academy will have forgotten.