As trade for rescue and partial rehabilitation, a brilliantly talented but extremely disadvantaged person of color changes a white man’s life. True story. It’s been documented in a major newspaper, and elaborated in book form. Now it’s a movie, because that’s what stories like this tend to become, especially when they’re true. The only pending question is how much it’ll matter that the white man is played by a guy who did a movie in blackface last year.
Helping hands: Journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) helps a schizophrenic music prodigy (Jamie Foxx) get a grip on his pastand his violin in The Soloist.
That would be Robert Downey, Jr., whose sharply antisentimental charisma is the most dramatically definitive feature of The Soloist and its saving grace. He plays Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, on whose book the film is based. The eponymous musician, played by Jamie Foxx, is the man Lopez one day discovered to be living from a shopping cart on the streets of L.A., scratching out Baroque and classical masterpieces on battered, half-stringless instruments to the applause of pigeons’ flapping wings. As Lopez soon discovered, Nathaniel Ayers was a musical prodigy, a poor Cleveland kid who got himself a scholarship to Juilliard in the ’70s—he was one of the few black students to do so—but developed severe schizophrenia there and couldn’t stay. Perfect column-fodder, in other words.
Lopez gets interested in Ayers right away—just as he gets antsy about having any kind of real relationship with the guy, let alone any responsibility to him. “I don’t want to be his only thing,” the columnist complains to his editor and ex, played with typical wizened appeal by Catherine Keener. She sees through him, of course. What matters is whether he’ll be able to see through himself. Actually, this is something a schizophrenic musical genius might know a thing or two about.
And yes, Foxx’s performance—compelling, if contrived—is fine. But the movie belongs to Downey. He plays the obligatory voice-over narration with just the right amount of calculation and detachment, as if everything Lopez says—and feels and thinks—is an early draft of his column being brainstormed, read aloud and sounded out.
Otherwise, and probably with the noble intention to avoid nobility, writer Susannah Grant and director Joe Wright take a rather literal approach to The Soloist. Even Wright’s experiments with getting inside Ayers’ broken, beautiful mind seem perfunctory. In one scene, Lopez takes Ayers to a concert, and as the music swells, the picture fades into corresponding color-field abstractions. This is a filmmaker who, in Atonement, improbably restaged the entire Allied evacuation of Dunkirk, but where the ephemeral beauties of Beethoven’s Third Symphony are concerned, the best thing he can come up with is basically an iTunes screensaver.
It’s not that Wright lacks vision (or hearing). There’s also an inspired—and, indeed, plot-motivated—moment of music played against straight-down shots of the city from cruising-altitude elevation. It happens only briefly, during a needed narrative transition, but the point is well-made, and taken: Listen, it suggests, to how transporting this really is, how elevated you can feel, even amid the inescapable noise.