Joe Wright's worlds-colliding drama The Soloist has so many strikes against it that it's hard to imagine coming out the other end feeling anything but relief that it was over. Think of it: a based-on-a-true-story about a cold-hearted journalist who meets a mentally disturbed homeless man who just happens to be a world-class musician. Together, the two strike up a unique friendship against the backdrop of Los Angeles's Dickensian skid row and imploding newspaper industry; a bright flower blooming from the crack in a downtown sidewalk. Also, one of the men happens to be black and the other white.
On paper, the treacle-meter for The Soloist is nearly off the charts. But while Wright (Atonement) hasn't fashioned anything like a classic, and the screenplay by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) is frequently thin on motivation, the film is not even close to the disaster that it should have been. This is higher praise than it may sound. Article continues below
Right off, it's clear that both leads are at the top of their game in a story that normally brings out the worst in actors of this caliber. As columnist Steve Lopez, Robert Downey Jr. could have been your bad-boy big-city journalist stereotype -- think Russell Crowe in the recent State of Play. And Jamie Foxx, playing fallen musical prodigy Nathaniel Ayers, could have fallen into the trap of playing his character's problems for tears instead of understanding. Just at the point when these two highly-praised actors should be swimming in overconfidence, they turn in performances as deft and graceful as anything either has ever done. In these actors' hands, neither of these characters is anything like a caricature, despite a story that cries out for them.
A lengthy and stylistically fractured segment following Lopez through a serious bicycling accident and its results introduces us not just to his ad-hoc writing method but also to the pell-mell newsroom, as wondrously deglamorized as any true ink-stained wretch could hope for. Lopez seems a sardonic and selfish crank, but not an inordinate one considering the business, and certainly not a man who needs a jolt of true experience to jump-start the dead battery of his humanity.
Only after creating Lopez as a real person does the film bring on Ayers, playing Beethoven mournfully in a downtown park, on a violin with only two strings. A gentle guy who spent a couple years at Juilliard in the early 1970s before mental illness got the better of him, Ayers lives most of his life in a fog, unable for instance to understand why just because Lopez is standing right next to him means that Lopez can't also be flying the jetliner passing overhead. His dialogue is a circuitous loop of memories and manias, with the prodigy he truly is able to flicker through only occasionally.
The two men's problematic friendship is immediate, and brilliantly played. Lopez desperately wants to help Ayers, and goes to extreme lengths to do so (contacting his family, trying to get him into new housing), but the film doesn't pretend his motives are entirely altruistic. At no point is Lopez given the sort of slap-on-the-back adulation expected from such a four-square humanitarian story. In fact, the one scene that should have been his reward for all those days trying to help return Ayers to a more structured life and hanging out down on skid row is cut short. At a banquet honoring Lopez, instead of seeing his heart-swelling speech, we get his drunk ex-wife and boss (played by Catherine Keener, who only seems to show up when somebody needs their teeth kicked in verbally) lacerating him for exploiting Ayers. (One of the homeless shelter workers, played to no-nonsense perfection by Nelsan Ellis, also does a memorable job of cutting Lopez's self-serving na´vetÚ to ribbons.)
Just as the film (mostly) dances a fine line between finding the soul in Ayers and Lopez's friendship without romanticizing it, it also provides an unusually humane portrait of the homeless. Several of the skid row-set scenes and flashbacks to Ayers' mental breakup have a flickering horror to them that recalls some of Wright's wartime set pieces in Atonement. But these moments still find space within them to present the damaged souls who washed up on those downtown streets as human beings, not freakish figures to be pitied or feared. The Soloist seems less interested in twisting its people and plot into moral lessons than it is in displaying each of its characters as individuals deserving of being regarded on their own terms.
Probably the best lesson one can take away from The Soloist is that there is no lesson to be taken, unless it is that one should treat one's fellow man with respect, and if you needed a movie to tell you that, well....