Uplifting, based-on-a-true-story tale of ordinary madness is very good for you--and maybe a good movie, too
In The Soloist, Robert Downey Jr. plays Steve Lopez, the real-life Los Angeles Times journalist who befriended and found his life changed by a chance encounter with a homeless musical prodigy. As written by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), the movie presents Lopez with a sort of descent into Hades--Los Angeles's skid row--that proves as illuminating for audiences as him and, consequently, transforms Lopez into a journalistic advocate for homeless policy change. (The movie serves as a cinematic argument for the same.) Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) is Lopez's guide into this hell, a man suffering from schizophrenia who appears trapped by his circumstances at one moment and a willing resident in another. Only playing his two-stringed violin, and later a cello provided by one of Lopez's sympathetic readers, can liberate him from the physical squalor and mental storm that surrounds him.
Ayers also turns out to be the audience's guide to emotional involvement in The Soloist, since Lopez is left surprisingly under-developed. Downey Jr. does his best to flesh out this role, but he's hindered by the fact that Lopez is supposed to be emotionally stunted. Too much time is spent trying to figure out his internalized need to help Ayers other than a sudden turn of human charity--which is not the case, since he begins from a rather exploitative place, as he writes about Ayers' life. There's even a bizarre sub-plot about Lopez trying to eradicate property-destroying raccoons with coyote urine--obligatory urine jokes ensue--but the narrative reason behind these hungry animals, if there is one, is never clarified.
Foxx's Ayers, on the other hand, is a portrait in tragic beauty; through deteriorating flashbacks, Grant and Wright return to Ayers' childhood and college years at Juilliard as his virtuoso talent for the cello, a passion that keeps him awake at nights playing his forearm as if it was his instrument, is subsumed by his manifesting mental illness. Like so many of America's homeless, he began his life "normal" before winding up on the streets.
The Soloist introduces Ayers as one of those crazies that people try to ignore when passing them downtown. Pushing a grocery cart loaded with his street-life and decorated with palm fronds, Ayers is dressed in flamboyant fashion smash-ups that would have made Jesse Ventura smirk in his wrestling heyday. Later, he puts on a red, white, and blue top hat and running suit, and paints his face like some patriotic ghost. It's hard not to laugh, but it's also hard not to hate yourself for it.
The movie goes a long way to providing a window into the mind of those suffering from schizophrenia, and as you get to know Ayers better with Lopez, it's difficult not to begin to suffer for his plight. If the movie triumphs in any way, it is in how unflinchingly it presents L.A.'s homeless situation, even going so far as to populate the movie with dozens of actual homeless residents and allowing many to share their tales with Lopez onscreen.
Here's the thing, though: It's difficult to find much to complain about with The Soloist. Downey Jr. is impossibly watchable, even in an under-written part. Foxx is so do damn good as Ayers you wish it wasn't him, if only so you weren't distracted by his transformation into a battered skid row resident. The movie shines a spotlight on the homeless and, in the process, demands for actual policy change. But despite all these good to fantastic working parts, despite its pedigree and grand ambition, there's nothing really about the movie to recommend it. It's not bad. It's not great. It's just a movie you should maybe, probably see.