Running time 109 minutes
Written by Susannah Grant
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx
Robert Downey Jr. was once described by a reviewer as “cinema’s veritable lost puppy.” Pretty good, yes? He is certainly always vulnerable, ready to lick your hand to be liked, slightly off the radar, stardom just out of reach, close but no cigar. He’s impressive all over again in The Soloist, giving it all he’s got, but with no payoff. Still, watching him work is one of the movie’s more curious pleasures.
Directed by Joe Wright, whose Atonement was one of the best films of 2007, and scripted by the distinguished Susannah Grant, who wrote Erin Brockovich and In Her Shoes, among others, The Soloist is a true story, based on a series of articles by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Mr. Downey plays Lopez, a reporter trapped in the challenging doldrums of the dead-end newspaper business. Disenchanted, disillusioned and still reeling from the collapse of his marriage to a fellow journalist, he mopes along a street in downtown L.A.’s Skid Row when he spots a ragged and filthy old homeless man (yes, that’s Jamie Foxx under the dreadlocks and dirt) scratching out a tune on a two-string violin. It sounds awful, but the man shows a knowledge of music Lopez finds curious. An interesting human-interest column develops when his research uncovers the man’s identity as Nathaniel Ayers, once a dynamic prodigy studying the cello at Juilliard and headed for a brilliant music career. How could a promising cellist end up living in tunnels and sleeping on the streets? As Lopez negotiates an uneasy friendship with the shy, aloof and distrusting bum, the lost man’s story—and the reporter’s determination to rehabilitate him—becomes a life-changing obsession. It is Lopez whose life is profoundly jump-started.
This is the same regeneration theme as Resurrecting the Champ (2007), in which a Denver sports writer (Josh Hartnett) rescues a homeless tramp (Samuel L. Jackson) and discovers he’s a once-famous boxing champ believed to be dead. In that movie, the boxer was all too willing to be rehabilitated because his story turned out to be a lie. In The Soloist, the cellist is real, but he can’t be saved because he’s not only psychologically damaged but dangerous and violent, too. Everybody likes movies about underdogs battling unbeatable odds to triumph in football, tennis, golf and Carnegie Hall. It’s the John Garfield syndrome. But Nathaniel is different—part wacko, part idiot savant, genuinely gifted, but panhandling on street corners while ranting about Beethoven in a Faulknerian stream of consciousness. (It’s mainly a showoff performance by Mr. Foxx, but you have to admire his mastery of the jabberwocky dialogue.) It’s the way the two characters play off each other that sustains emotional involvement—the musician derailed by mental illness and the journalist de-balled by an ex-wife who has been promoted to his managing editor (Catherine Keener). Lopez’s research and Ms. Grant’s collation of the facts into a gripping “living” document provide insight into the best (an elderly reader forced to give up her music career after 50 years because of arthritis reads the article and donates her cello to Ayers) and worst (probing homeless shelters, we see the saddest parts of L.A.) of humanity. I couldn’t help but be moved watching Nathaniel, rendered speechless by his new cello, trying to protect his prize from junkies, psychos, predators and hustlers in the rescue missions and dark alleys of Skid Row—not to mention rats the size of rabbits.
Joe Wright’s direction is always on the beam—intimate brush strokes, in a larger frame. There’s one aerial shot that makes L.A. look like a maze of cinder blocks and little rectangular swimming pools. Easy for a life to get lost in. Lopez’s goal is to restore a disenfranchised soul to his profession and give him purpose through the restorative magic of music. It doesn’t work, but he does make a lifelong friend. The Soloist is a moving, inspirational story told in a straightforward style, refreshingly devoid of sentimentality. It’s about just one of the 90,000 homeless human train wrecks living on the streets of Los Angeles, and it makes you wonder how many other lost causes might move up a rung or two on the ladder to a better life if we took a little more time to care.