Play It Again, Jamie! Foxx Soars as Schizo Virtuoso

c sarrissololist Play It Again, Jamie! Foxx Soars as Schizo VirtuosoThe Soloist
Running Time 109 minutes
Written by Susannah Grant
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Lisagay Hamilton

Joe Wright’s The Soloist, from the screenplay by Susannah Grant, is based on the book The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, by Steve Lopez. The subtitle of the book says virtually everything about this film, about a Los Angeles Times columnist, Steve Lopez, who in April 2005 began a series of pieces about a onetime musical prodigy named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers who’d been reduced by an acute case of schizophrenia to playing a two-string secondhand violin in downtown Los Angeles slum doorways and alleys.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Lopez, and Jamie Foxx plays Ayers, the destitute street musician, and certainly the redemptive element in this saga of a transformative friendship is the glorious music of (mostly) Ludwig van Beethoven spread across the soundtrack. Mr. Wright and his screenwriter, Ms. Grant, have gone to great lengths to reproduce the intransigent realities of urban homelessness and mental illness in the slow, setback-filled progression of their only partially regenerative narrative. They have taken a few liberties with the biographical facts to speed up the story, but they have resisted the temptation of a grossly sentimental ending, and for that they deserve to be commended.

In addition, Mr Downey and Mr. Foxx both turn in Oscar-worthy performances in their very strenuous and detail-drenched roles. Mr. Downey is particularly impressive in the indispensable bite he gives to a characterization that might otherwise have sunk in the swamp of excessive altruism. Mr. Foxx, a talented musician on the piano in his own right, nonetheless had to master the fingering on both the violin and the cello before he could be convincing in his extensive simulations on the screen.

Catherine Keener is somewhat wasted in the thanklessly marginalized role of the columnist’s finally reconciled ex-wife. If anything, this platonic all-male love story is the antithesis of a chick flick, and the presence of Ms. Keener’s sharp-tongued Mary Weston in the proceedings becomes embarrassingly superfluous as the picture progresses. Similarly, Lisagay Hamilton as Ayers’ long-suffering sister, Jennifer, is not given much more to do than sit next to her brother during the film’s concluding concert scene.

In the only other significant role in the film, Nelsan Ellis’ charity house supervisor, David Carter, has to patiently explain to the columnist the limits of psychiatry in the miracle seeker’s quest for an instant cure for Ayers’ schizophrenia. But even after Ayers turns violently on his would-be benefactor, Lopez persists in pursuing his quixotic quest for the ex-prodigy’s rehabilitation.

Mr. Wright’s two previous prizewinning feature films, Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), established his credentials to undertake The Soloist. Ms. Grant’s most notable screenwriting credit is for Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), for which Julia Roberts won an Oscar in the title role.

I might note just in passing that this is the second film I have recently reviewed that seeks to glorify the desperately endangered profession of print journalism from coast to coast. The Soloist itself contains a scene that strikes an uncomfortably timely note in what I took to be a parody of the usual soothing syrup squirted out to reporters about to be laid off by their employers. Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, etc.

asarris@observer.com