The lithe talents of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx are the most tangible aspects of The Soloist, a film full of heart but haplessly misguided.
A chance encounter with a violin-playing homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx) provides Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez (Downey, Jr.) with some fresh material. The starved for ideas writer is compelled to continue a friendship with Ayers, but soon discovers that Ayers‘ remarkable musical genius had been cut short by his lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Midway through, the movie changes from a personal story of an unlikely friendship to a larger commentary about urban homelessness, which is a lofty theme that the film cannot sustain.
The interaction between the two develops in full predictable fashion: Lopez treads the line between assisting needy Ayers and exploiting him for Lopez’s own gain. Though The Soloist treads on slightly grittier, less contrived soil than would be expected, the familiar archetype is alive and well in the undertones.
The film seemed a bit inconsistent in its storytelling perspective. The story unfolds primarily from the point of view of Lopez; Downey, Jr. is in nearly every scene while Foxx acts as second fiddle. However, flashbacks from Ayers‘ standpoint are interjected every so often, which serves to elucidate his descent into schizophrenia.
The above oddity is particularly painful to observe, since director Joe Wright has received acclaim from audiences, critics and awards ceremonies for his beautifully paced and aesthetically pleasing movies like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement.
However, the film shines at the same points that the character Nathaniel Ayers does: with music. Foxx’s acting is at its best while he’s performing (or miming a performance), drawing in the audience to his character’s immense passion. Even a lengthy interlude of music represented as moving colors (a la Fantasia) cannot alienate the viewers from the innate human connection between themselves and the character.
The film, as advertised and reiterated before the credits roll, is based on a true story. Though it may seem to imply innovation, this true story just happens to fill the pre-established Hollywood feel-good film conventions, which can account for its popularity.
Then again, perhaps it is presumptuous to assume that its adherence to formula is a bad thing. Maybe a film with a little bit of newness and a lot of tugging at heartstrings is desirable once in a while, even cathartic. And if that’s what you’re looking for, The Soloist does not disappoint.
LAURA KROEGER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.