Based on the real-life relationship between Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr.) and homeless musical prodigy Nathaniel Ayers (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx), The Soloist makes every effort to tug at the audience’s heartstrings with some solid performances by its two leading men and a wrenching examination of the link between homelessness and mental illness. It has all of the proper ingredients of an Oscar contender, but its unfocused narrative and inconsistent tone make the entire affair unnerving, overwrought and ultimately disappointing.
Stumped trying to think of new ideas for his column, Lopez comes across Ayers out on the streets of Los Angeles, aptly playing a violin that has just two strings. Lopez is intrigued and, upon learning that Ayers was once a cello student at Juilliard, he writes a story about him. A reader is so moved by the story that she sends Lopez her cello to give to Ayers. Lopez then hooks Ayers up with a local homeless shelter in an apparent attempt to salvage him and share his musical talent with the world.
This may sound like an uplifting story, but The Soloist—directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) with a screenplay by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)—is a complete downer. Lopez is driven to help Ayers both out of compassion and an apparent need to prove to himself and others that he is not exploiting the schizophrenic musician. However, Lopez soon learns that some people can’t—and won’t—be helped as his relationship with Ayers takes some disturbing turns later in the film.
Downey is great as the frenzied, downtrodden writer while Foxx makes his character’s mental illness believable without devolving into caricature. However, it never seems as though Lopez’s interest in Ayers extends all that far beyond subject matter for his column. Lopez helps Ayers out, sure, but with every generous act comes new material for him to mine, a point that is even brought up (and never fully resolved) by his editor/ex-wife, Mary Weston (Oscar nominee Catherine Keener). Downey and Foxx try to make the relationship work through their natural chemistry with one another, but the script just doesn’t articulate their mutual affection very well.
Despite solid performances and its valiant attempt to tackle social problems—namely our attitudes toward the mentally ill and the homeless—The Soloist never strikes that fine balance between the schmaltzy and the genuinely sentimental. Through Foxx’s performance we feel sorry for Ayers, but the film’s generic flashback sequences showing us early parts of his life give us the impression that we’re being manipulated. There are also odd comedy bits sprinkled throughout, including Lopez’s attempts to use coyote urine to rid his lawn of raccoons. They should provide relief from the film’s serious primary subject matter, but these awkwardly-placed attempts at humor come off as misfires.
The Soloist isn’t a bad film, but it never lives up to the potential of its story nor does it do Downey and Foxx’s performances justice. It's a flawed symphony that hits far too many sour notes.
The Soloist (2009)
Director: Joe Wright
Writer(s): Susannah Grant (Screenplay) Steve Lopez (Book)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener
Release Date: April 24, 2009