Welcome to Hollywood! Mecca of all things fabulous, where you frolic beneath the soaring palms, rub shoulders with the elite of Tinsel Town, and soak up the decadence as equally as you do the Californian sunshine, it’s the City of Angels; but you won’t find them in the 50-block skid row of downtown LA. Here, amid the smoky haze of the crack pipes that burn without stinting, and the eyes that roll in limp, hanging heads, the rats run free in a gutter of human corruption. In 2005, an estimated 8,000 to 11,000 homeless people were living here, and among these ghosts that haunt the city, Nathanial Anthony Ayres, Jr.
Not far from here, stands the Los Angeles Times building, City Hall and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, buildings that perch atop a hill like vast silvery flourishes, far from the reach of the Nathaniel Ayerses of this world. And from the chaotic bustle of the Los Angeles Times newsroom, journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) wandered, as he sought the next subject for his column. Discovering a tousled Nathaniel (Jamie Foxx) beneath a statue of Beethoven, gingerly playing a two stringed violin, he found it: once a budding Julliard cello virtuoso, Mr. Ayres succumbed to the schizophrenia that plagued him, dropped out of school, and ended up on the streets, where he trundled a shopping cart stuffed with trash, and bedded down next to the rats. Yet as Lopez soon discovers, Ayres’ mad, disheveled surface hides a complicated-but-delicate soul obsessed with the beauty of music.
Based on the book by L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, The Soloist recounts what happened when one of the city’s more privileged residents met with one of its less fortunates. Though it is based on a true story, the film takes pains not to sweeten the facts. And so, director Joe Wright (Atonement and Pride and Prejudice), guides us through a movie that concludes with no concert for Nathaniel, no belated fame and notoriety, no happy ending – there is none of the expected "inspirational" conclusion that many would watch this film and hope to see. Over the course of The Soloist, Lopez does help Ayers to rediscover his music and a more dignified way of living, but whether this will fulfill you remains to be seen (it all depends on how schmaltzy you are).
Truth be told, The Soloist could be described as soft-hearted, middle-of-the-road award-bait. It’s a bit shapeless. There is no real coherent story line – more of a sequence of events that fit together rather clumsily. You wait and wait for a climactic moment, but you never get it. Between Lopez’s column and his encounters with Nathaniel, you witness the memory of how Ayers went from a happy childhood in Cleveland, to hopeful promise in New York, and finally to his Los Angeles hell. Such wistful flashbacks are pieces of a slightly incoherent puzzle that Lopez becomes increasingly (and understandably) hesitant to solve.
Yes, the film is flawed, predictably sentimental, but often very moving. Ayers is vulnerable, lovable, yet inherently volatile. Given to verbose bursts then sudden silence, he doesn’t so much talk to Lopez as he just talks and talks, the words pouring out of him in flood-like succession until fury, fear or melancholy stop the stream. Lopez helps him, and there are both successes and setbacks, but these are interspersed with scenes that plunge us back into the dark world of L.A.’s seedy streets – the world that Ayres still inhabits. You drift amid the lost and forgotten, as the reserved voice-over that is Lopez gives witness to what he has seen.
Though a little disjointed and ever so slightly inconclusive, all in all The Soloist has been made with sincerity and taste and the film’s commitment to the material is apparent. While Jamie Foxx gives a lyrical performance as a man so trapped in a whirlpool of feeling that he cannot connect with anything but Beethoven, Robert Downey, Jr. plays Lopez with a dark nuance. This is the story of an unlikely friendship, and specifically of one man’s attempt to help a lost other. Foxx and Downey seize your sympathy, and it is their performances that give this film its weight and depth, along with its insistence upon the fundamental ambiguities of the human nature and mind.
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Junior, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Rachael Harris, LisaGay Hamilton, Nelsan Ellis
Director: Joe Wright
Run time: 102 minutes