Film Review: The Soloist

A sensitive but surprisingly unmoving portrayal of the friendship (based on a true story) between a 'Los Angeles Times' writer and a troubled street musician living on the streets of Skid Row. Jamie Foxx gives a standout performance.

The Soloist is a thoughtful film with a large heart, but it’s somehow missing a beat. Perhaps it’s that the story on which it is based, the unexpected friendship between a Los Angeles Times columnist, Steve Lopez, and a homeless street musician suffering from schizophrenia, Nathaniel Ayers, is already familiar through coming attractions, Lopez’s columns and book (The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music), and a recent “60 Minutes” piece. It doesn’t help that Susannah Grant’s screenplay turns Lopez, who in real life is married (the production notes say “happily”), into a single guy undergoing a mid-life crisis, whose ex-wife is also his editor. Further cementing the fictional Lopez’s damage is a face-bruising bicycle accident that occurs in the movie’s first scene. The parallelism between one of society’s winners flailing alongside a societal “loser” is a little obvious, depriving the story of what one suspects are the subtler gifts the friendship offers both men.

This bromance, however, is a profound one, bridging the divides of mental illness, class and race. Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) stumbles upon Ayers (Jamie Foxx) while walking in downtown Los Angeles in search of a story. Impressed by the music Ayers produces from a weathered two-stringed violin, Lopez starts a conversation, and does a double-take when Ayers tells him he once studied at Julliard. Acknowledging his disheveled appearance, Ayers says, “I’ve had a few setbacks.” Pointing to his shiner, Lopez replies, “Me, too.” When Lopez returns to his office, he calls Julliard to see if he has a story, and is disappointed but not surprised when told that Ayers is not listed. But soon Lopez receives word Ayers had indeed attended the institution before dropping out, and he bolts to the park with the Beethoven statue where he first heard Ayers play. He eventually discovers Ayers playing in a tunnel along the highway and sets out to earn his trust.

Foxx throws himself into the part of Ayers. His appearance is transformed with thinning, wavy, graying hair parted in the middle and plastered to his head. Wearing a fanciful, tattered wardrobe (one outfit mixes a silver sequined top, purple scarf, worn-out pants and sneakers), Foxx conveys Ayers’ poetic intelligence, as well as his emotional fragility, his capacity for both childlike trust and paranoid fear. He speaks in a hurried, hushed voice, fusing long stretches of dialogue into one run-on sentence, running in and out of sense. He’s completely believable as a musician (as he was in Ray), and as a man who at one point confesses to Lopez that he (Lopez) is literally his god.

Downey brings his usual wit, focus and jittery charm to Lopez. It’s not his fault that he’s played similar roles before, that he’s been overexposed lately, and that his character, as written, is more of a stereotype than Ayers. Although it’s doubtful this film would have been made without the star power, it would have profited from less familiar faces. Although the two have decent chemistry, it’s not always possible to forget that Jamie Foxx is in a weird costume under a tunnel playing a refrain over and over so a frustrated Robert Downey, Jr. can’t get a word in.

The wonderful Catherine Keener, who has also been working a lot lately, plays another acerbic woman (Mary, Lopez’s ex-wife) who tells it like it is. LisaGay Hamilton sensitively portrays Ayers’ estranged sister, Jennifer.

To his credit, the British director Joe Wright (Atonement) pointedly draws attention to the plight of the homeless in Los Angeles’ Skid Row, depicting the violence, rats and squalor of the streets where more than 5,000 people live. Hundreds of homeless background extras were recruited for the film. Lopez’s columns on Nathaniel did more than provide Ayers with friendship, a cello and contact with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall, it brought increased funding and social services to Skid Row and the homeless, many of whom suffer from drug dependency and mental illness.

Wright is less successful in conveying the passion of music, which speaks better for itself. In one scene Ayers listens, eyes closed, to a rehearsal at Disney Hall, and the screen fills with a multi-colored light show until the concert ends. The film lacks Scott Hicks’ flair in Shine (another film about a child prodigy whose musical career was cut short by mental illness) for letting music be a major character. But Wright’s depiction of schizophrenia is more authentic than Ron Howard’s in A Beautiful Mind, in which visual hallucinations rather than aural ones torment the afflicted character. The scene in New York when Ayers first starts hearing threatening voices, rather than the music he is playing, is terrifying.