Well, at least it washes away the bad aftertaste of Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind. Though far too shapeless and impersonal, Joe Wright's The Soloist does a better than credible job of confronting the torment of schizophrenia without corny Hollywood-style theatrics or histrionic melodrama. It also manages to take a fairly responsible social stance toward its subject matter, tackling mental illness, homelessness and even personal ethics without simple sentimentality.
On the other hand, director Wright fancies himself a visual poet, taking what should've been an expansion of journalist Steve Lopez's insightful populism and filling it with visual excess and artsy detachment.
Based on a series of L.A. Times columns and an eventual book, The Soloist is an old-fashioned social drama chronicling the real life relationship that developed between reporter Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a musically gifted but mentally disturbed homeless man. In his younger days, Ayers was a student at Juilliard until the voices in his head drove him, first, to his home in Cleveland and eventually to Los Angeles' Skid Row. Lopez, in search of a good story, stumbled upon Ayers plucking away on a two-string violin and seized the opportunity to turn Nathaniel's fascinating history into a series of popular columns. But real-life complications soon intruded, and Lopez found himself deep in Nathaniel's precarious situation, learning that a donated cello and safe apartment wouldn't bridge the divide of race, class and psychological illness.
At its heart, The Soloist is a conventional story of redemption where two unlikely friends learn from each other how to overcome their alienation. But instead of intelligently embracing this dramatic core, Wright sacrifices dramatic thrust with overwrought flashbacks and metaphorical flights of fancy about urban disassociation and music's redemptive power. The worst moment sees an extended and misguided explosion of colors that represents Nathaniel's internal reaction to hearing the Los Angeles Symphony play Beethoven (his musical hero) live for the very first time. You know you're off-track when the audience is encouraged to remember a similar (and better) scene in Pixar's Ratatouille.
More, screenwriter Susannah Grant's (Erin Brockovich) adaptation doesn't build to a dramatically meaningful conclusion, and she has written Lopez as a dull and self-absorbed protagonist. With a sturdier script, Wright could've played with his lofty themes and art-school visuals. Instead, The Soloist comes off as earnest but unfocused, impersonal and heavy-handed.
It's a shame, because something special could be mined from the intimate but difficult friendship that emerges between Lopez and Nathaniel — a relationship that could've challenged audiences to recognize their own limitations in understanding plights of the disadvantaged. Unfortunately, Wright reveals his own misguided instincts: The final shot of real-life homeless extras boogieing down with the lead performers belittles the very people his film supposedly champions.
Ultimately, The Soloist's two aces are Downey Jr. and Foxx, whose talents elevate the material far above its worth. Downey, no stranger to this kind of character, gives Lopez a flat, jittery wit that perfectly complements Nathaniel's emotional and mental volatility. Foxx, on the other hand, convinces as both a musician (as he showed us in Ray) and as a man who vacillates between childlike openness and paranoid fear. Keeping his reactions human-sized, he portrays Nathaniel as an intelligent and sometimes even manipulative man, struggling to catch up with his rapidly unspooling thoughts. Together the two actors are compelling and sympathetic, pulling us in despite Grant's meandering sense of drama. Too bad the same can't be said of poor Catherine Keener, who is given the thankless role of Lopez's divorced wife and newspaper boss (in real life Lopez is "happily married"). Less a character and more a plot convenience, she's forced to play a shrewish critic in one scene and the sympathetic ear in the next.
It's difficult to criticize a film that's so clearly sincere in its attempts to tastefully uplift and inspire. As an addition to Participant Film's (The Visitor, An Inconvenient Truth) mission to present socially relevant work, The Soloist is a perfect opportunity to articulate important social issues. But good intentions can't overcome the poor writing and bad direction.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.