Movie Review: Ann Hornaday on a Thoughtful, Well-Acted "The Soloist"

In this drama, based on a true story, Robert Downey, Jr. plays a newspaper columnist who befriends a mentally ill homeless man (Jamie Foxx), one who happens to be a classically trained musician. Video by Universal Pictures
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009

It's impossible not to be moved by "The Soloist," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. The true story of a newspaper columnist and his friendship with a schizophrenic street musician in Los Angeles, the film is suffused with heartbreak and humanism, as it takes one man's grim story -- early promise, bright future, mental breakdown, despair -- and turns it into a spiritual meditation on friendship.

Downey plays Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who, always looking to feed the beast that is a regular column, happens upon Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx) in downtown Los Angeles's Pershing Square, playing a dilapidated violin missing all but two strings. Lopez discovers that Ayers once attended Juilliard, and his resulting articles wind up taking the writer not only into the tortured history and mind of his subject, but also into the Hieronymus Bosch-like world of the city's Skid Row. They also capture the imagination of the city, whose denizens respond to Ayers's story with concern and generosity (one woman sends him a beautiful cello) and whose leaders embark on a self-congratulatory campaign to clean up Ayers's neighborhood.

Those are the most conventional narrative beats of "The Soloist," which for a while looks as if it will veer into Magical Negro territory, where black characters serve as vessels and vehicles for white benevolence and redemption. But the movie, directed by Joe Wright ("Pride and Prejudice," "Atonement"), just barely avoids falling into that offensive trap, mostly thanks to frank, unshowy performances by Downey and Foxx.

Coming off a spectacular comeback last year with roles in "Zodiac," "Iron Man" and "Tropic Thunder," Downey once again proves to be a mesmerizing screen presence, playing Lopez as a fascinating contradiction. At one point Ayers calls Lopez his god, a role the reporter says he rejects but obviously craves. He clearly suffers from delusions of his own, in the form of a powerful Messiah complex (as one close-up on his keychain attests, he has the whole world in his hands). "You couldn't stop the earthquake, you can't save L.A. and you can't cure Nathaniel," Lopez's editor and estranged wife, played by Catherine Keener, tells him at one point. (Although "The Soloist" clearly embraces the spiritual aspects of Lopez's relationship with Ayers, it also just as clearly holds organized religion in contempt, especially in its depiction of an obnoxious cello teacher who also happens to be an evangelical Christian.)

For his part, Foxx plays Nathaniel with welcome understatement, quietly mumbling his scrambled monologues and donning even his most outlandish costumes with deadpan seriousness. "The Soloist" bears unmistakable echoes of such similarly themed movies as "Shine," and considering Geoffrey Rush's Oscar for that performance, it's easy to see why actors grab roles so ripe with scenery-chewing potential. But Foxx shows admirable restraint in playing Ayers, who just as admirably never succumbs to Lopez's or Hollywood's ideas of the stereotypical victim, whether of circumstance or his own demons.

Those demons are portrayed in "The Soloist" first as brief visions and eventually as terrifying and intrusive voices that drive Ayers from Juilliard to the streets of L.A., where he feels safest. In flashbacks to the onset of Ayers's illness, and in telling the story of his friendship with Lopez, director Wright plays it straight, even managing to find humor in their burgeoning relationship. (There's a great sight gag when Keener's character looks out the window during a meeting to see the men hauling Ayers's overflowing grocery cart to Disney Hall.)

But Wright also takes interesting risks here and there, straying from the episodic narrative to insert moments of abstraction and metaphor (two birds soaring over downtown when Ayers first plays his new cello, a leitmotif of Lopez's battle with the raccoons that seem to threaten his boho-bourgeois life). And, most important and, by mainstream movie standards, most bravely, he spends a lot of time on Skid Row, immersing viewers in its filth, disorder and physical violence. As Lopez comes to know and finally accept the world that Ayers has chosen to live in, filmgoers also come to see what is too often characterized as a problem -- The Homeless Mentally Ill -- instead as people, with problems, weaknesses, strengths and improbably generous hearts. A scene in which Ayers recites the Lord's Prayer over images of poverty and squalor plays like something from a latter-day "Grapes of Wrath."

Wright limns all of this without romanticizing Skid Row or the militarized maze that comprises the hospital and social-service bureaucracy Lopez navigates in his efforts to help Ayers. Meanwhile, the question arises whether Lopez himself isn't dangerously isolated and in denial about his own nature. That question is finally settled in a satisfying, quietly radical third-act reversal that, combined with Wright's insistent focus on the least gauzy aspects of Ayers's life, raises "The Soloist" above its own conventions. Hollywood loves the heroics of good intentions, but this is that rare movie that is just as interested in the road to hell.

The Soloist (119 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and profanity.

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