WHAT IT'S ABOUT?
The Soloist is based on the experiences of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, whose career and marriage are floundering when one day he stumbles into a life-changing encounter with a homeless musician named Nathaniel Ayers. At first sensing a great story, Lopez soon realizes there is much more at stake. Ayers was once a brilliant student of music at Juilliard until a crippling case of schizophrenia forced him to drop out. Though currently homeless, it's clear he still possesses the soul and talent of a true artist. Determined to help this potential genius regain the life he lost, Lopez strikes up an intensely complicated relationship with Ayers that will take them both in new and surprising directions.
WHO'S IN IT?
One of the chief attributes of The Soloist is its pitch-perfect casting of the two leads who drive this highly personal story. Robert Downey Jr. is very fine as Lopez, a man searching for some meaning as his marriage to wife and fellow reporter (Catherine Keener) is falling apart and the newspaper business is failing. As Nathaniel, the homeless mentally ill man Lopez befriends on L.A.'s skid row, Jamie Foxx is superb, going deep to find the lost soul of this once supremely promising talent. It's his best work since his Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles, and the musical connection should not be lost on anyone. The two stars movingly recreate this unique and frustrating friendship and alone make this otherwise uneven film worth seeing. Keener does well in a sketchy supporting role and Lisa Gay Hamilton ( TV's The Practice) handles her two or three scenes as Ayers' concerned sister with understated grace.
Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) allows his actors room to grow their characters into challenging portrayals that avoid sticky sentimentality. He and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) let their tale play out very slowly. Admirably, The Soloist is a studio film with a real social conscience (a rarity these days), shining a light on the increasing plight of the homeless community. Also a plus are the classical musical sequences, which are well-staged and beautiful to hear.
For all its attributes, there's something oddly cold and uninvolving here. You should leave uplifted and inspired but what's on screen is much darker, if not deeper. It's as if Wright, a British director making his first American film, was tone-deaf in trying to establish exactly which story he wanted to tell here. Is it about the debilitating effects of schizophrenia? A talented musician trying to find his inner song again? A lost reporter throwing himself into a new friendship only to forget his own dire predicament? Hard to say and that's the problem. You leave this film with more questions than answers.
Lopez practically has to force Ayers to accompany him to watch a concert rehearsal at Disney Hall and the resulting scene, in which a jittery Ayers insists on taking all his worldly belongings with him, is funny and well-orchestrated.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Challenging adult dramas like this are becoming an endangered species in 2009, so it would be wise to hurry if you want to watch The Soloist play in theaters.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.