Robert Downey Jr. as Steve Lopez
Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Anthony Ayers
Catherine Keener as Mary Weston
Nelsan Ellis as David
Lisa Gay Hamilton as Jennifer
Michael Bunin as Adam Crane
David Jean Thomas as Jim Trotter
Justin Martin as Nathaniel – Age 13-26
Tom Hollander as Curt
Rachael Harris as Leslie
Stephen Root as Curt
In 2005, while hanging around Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) finds himself drawn to a homeless man in whimsical dress, expertly playing a violin with only two strings beneath the statue of Ludwig von Beethoven.
In theory, anyway. Keep in mind that Joe Wright's ("Atonement") adaptation of Lopez's book, "The Soloist," does contain the lethal warning, Based On A True Story.
Still, the test of a narrative film's quality is in how it handles its material, not how closely it skews to history. These aren't documentaries after all. The lure of "The Soloist" is obvious, the story of a troubled prodigy--Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx)--brought low by mental illness, and the struggle to return to normalcy. As long as the director keeps things from getting too trite in the irresistible urge to make reality better (and isn't that what movies really are?) these sorts of things can work very well. And Wright is a very good director.
Being a columnist, Lopez's initial instinct after meeting Ayers is naturally to use him as the subject of a story. He's not an artist the way Ayers is, he's a professional who treats everything, even his own grizzly bicycle accident, as grist for the mill. He doesn't interact with other human beings, he just reports on them. In its way, "The Soloist" is more about Lopez than it is anyone else, mainly because it's told entirely from his point of view barring a few flashbacks.
It's actually that point of view that makes "The Soloist" work, as it avoids a lot of the easy angst of Ayers' youthful breakdown in favor of Lopez's realizations about the world he lives in. He works hard to get Ayers off the street and into a local homeless shelter (a struggle made all the more difficult by Ayers' schizophrenic paranoia), and can't help but get involved with the people that live and work there.
Downey Jr. and Foxx are both very good in roles that could easily be very bad, or at least very easy. Foxx's Ayers speaks in a rapid fire, stream of consciousness fashion that could be used as a source of bad humor or easy pathos, but instead remains earnest and believable. Downey Jr. has the less showy, but equally to screw up, role of the disillusioned reporter, lost in his own messy world as he tries to cope with the everyday problems of life like divorce and raccoons destroying his lawn. He could have gone into auto-pilot mode of self-deprecation and charm, but he doesn't, not much anyway.
The plot itself is about normal for this sort of thing – there's only a handful of different stories Hollywood is willing to spend money on, because they know they work (or will at least be popular). But somehow Wright makes it all work, even if it does skirt the edge of triteness. In less sure hands, elements like a brief musical interlude done all in syncopated flashes of color, trying to communicate what experiencing music is like for Ayers could be unbelievably overdone. Everything in this movie could be unbelievably overdone, and if the final result isn't masterpiece, the fact that it's so sedate is victory on its own.
It does tip its hands in a few places, things like finding Ayers at the Beethoven statue, which makes sense but is still a little overdone. Tom Hollander's ("Pirates of the Caribbean") over-zealous cello teacher is mainly just annoying. And Catherine Keener is used largely as wall paper, the background of Lopez's life which is introduced and then mostly ignored in favor of his relationship with Ayers.
But that's about all. Screenwriter Susannah Grant ("Catch and Release") has a habit of strident screeding, but it's toned down here. And Dario Marianelli's score is excellent, melding with classic pieces throughout the film, and then branching back out to original elements. But mainly this works because it's Wright's film, and the difference between someone who knows what they're doing and someone who doesn't is always obvious.
It's not great. The subject matter is a little too easy to overdo for that, short of a masterpiece, anyway. And it's not one of those. But it is pretty good, thanks to a pair of fine performances from its leads and a director who understands understatement. And sometimes those can be as rare to find as a genuine musical prodigy.