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 into a book. And it’s even become a movie, because that’s what stories like this tend to do, 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.
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 halfway-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, if contrived, is compelling enough. 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 because they have 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’ beautiful-but-broken 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 3rd 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.
That must be what the promotional taglines mean by “emotionally soaring drama.” It’s a fair point, and at least more discreetly put than just “For your consideration, Academy.” And speaking of discretion, who’d have thought we’d one day be able to rely on Robert Downey Jr. for that? Then again, as regards safe passage from Tropic Thunder’s blackface to The Soloist’s sepia tones of redemptive movie friendship, who else but he could ever make it happen?