Movies based on true stories generally like to trumpet their real-world bona fides right at the outset, so that we’ll be properly amazed as the remarkable events unfold. That The Soloist eschews this approach, despite having been adapted from a memoir by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez, I took at first as a sign of integrity—especially since the director, Joe Wright, made his name with extremely arty prestige-lit flicks (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement). By film’s end, though, it’s abundantly clear that this unusual restraint is motivated less by pride than by simple good sense, because The Soloist is hardly stranger than fiction—just duller. Unless, that is, you’re someone who sees a crazy homeless dude on the street and automatically assumes that he must have been born insane and indigent, never having possessed any kind of human potential whatsoever, in which case this movie will definitely pack a real wallop.
To be fair, Lopez, played here by Robert Downey Jr., doesn’t appear to have been quite that naive. Wandering around downtown LA one afternoon a few years ago, he chanced upon Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a schizophrenic street musician who, when not consumed by semi-coherent rambling, managed to produce recognizable melodies from a violin with only two strings. A little digging revealed that Ayers had been a musical prodigy in his youth, having dropped out of Juilliard in his third year due to mental illness. That’s a reasonably meaty story for a handful of newspaper columns, to be sure, but not what you’d call a world-shaker in and of itself. So the drama here, such as it is, concerns Lopez’s frustrated efforts to befriend and rescue his troubled subject, who stubbornly refuses to magically become sane.
Given that Foxx’s desire to play Ayers was reportedly the impetus for this movie, his performance is admirably remote and understated, though he does allow himself one late-breaking Oscar-clip outburst. In particular, Foxx declines to annotate Ayers’ abrupt shifts from lucidity to dementia (which often occur in mid-sentence), trusting us to ride the wave of disorientation. Downey, no stranger to disorientation himself, does typically excellent work in a role that requires him to be far more stable and grounded than usual. And both actors are alternately supported and undermined by Wright’s aggressively stylish direction, which, as in his previous films, can be thrillingly fluid when he’s not merely showboating. Striking compositions are one thing, but it’s hard not to roll your eyes when he pulls the camera into the stratosphere and then has a couple of birds wing their heavily symbolic way past the lens. You know the movie’s in trouble when it makes you want to say, “Dude, it’s just Beethoven.”
Still, the real problem here is Susannah Grant’s screenplay, which never really gets a firm handle on what The Soloist is meant to be about. Buzzwords like “grace” and “belief” are frequently uttered, and Lopez dutifully undergoes a crisis of conscience right where he’s supposed to (at the junction between Acts 2 and 3), but his relationship with Ayers never achieves any real sense of urgency or gravitas—it’s just the story of a reporter who must accept that he can’t save the screwed-up guy he’s now made quasi-famous. If you want to see how thorny and anguished this scenario could have been in more assured and less conventional hands, rent yourself a little-seen movie called Joe Gould’s Secret (2000), which stars Stanley Tucci as a New Yorker scribe and Ian Holm as the mentally unbalanced subject upon whom he lavishes well-meaning, unconsciously destructive solicitude. It, too, was based on a true story, but it achieves a forlorn power that The Soloist, determined to inspire, wholly lacks.