Starring: Jaime Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener
Directed by: Joe Wright (“Atonement”)
Written by: Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”)
Based on a series of articles by Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez, the story of a Julliard- music-virtuoso-turned-street-vagabond is simply fascinating on so many levels. There are, however, limitations as to how deep a story like this can run before its momentum staggers into a standard biopic. In the case of “The Soloist,” the narrative should have stayed inside its original newspaper columns.
Leading the way in this inspirational story is Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx (“Ray”) as Nathaniel Ayers, the aforementioned homeless musician, whose mental illness forces him to quit his dream to play the cello and leads him to a life of meager means.
With no family to turn to, Nathaniel finds friendship and emotional comfort from reporter Steve Lopez (Downey Jr.), who becomes intrigued with his latest subject after watching him perform on a two-stringed violin under a statue of Beethoven in L.A.’s Pershing Square. While Steve plays the observer for their first meetings for his piece, he soon becomes much more to Nathaniel as the everyday challenges he faces as a homeless schizophrenic become more and more life threatening.
While screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) has some great material about the passion for music one individual feels, most of that sentiment comes from Foxx himself as he falls into a tranquil daze every time a bow hits a stringed instrument. While this aspect of Nathaniel’s life is essential in completing his character arch, Grant fails to complete her end of the bargain when intertwining a message of mental illness and homelessness. Both topics are placed on the same pedestal as Nathaniel’s natural music ability, which poses a problem.
By the film’s third act Nathaniel doesn’t seem like a musician without a home who has mental issues. Instead, he is projected as a crazy homeless guy who knows a thing or two about classical music. More time needed to be devoted to the musical side of the story although in Lopez’s written word the other issues are just as significant. In “The Soloist,” however, they’re stylized more than they need to be and ultimately skimmed over. The way these views are presented also clash with the idea that Nathanial has been blessed with an effortless gift.
While Foxx does his best to keep Nathaniel from becoming a caricature, Downey Jr. has more of a challenge when he attempts mold his character into someone other than a crutch. It’s a very one-dimensional take that doesn’t quite lift off past his newsroom desk. Even when Grant introduces more for Downey Jr. to grasp (Catherine Keener is sort of in the background as his ex-wife), the story line goes dissonant and nothing else is said about Steve’s own parallels to the film’s focus.
Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) doesn’t seem to get his mind around the noteworthiness of the story. “The Soloist” might be soothing at times, but that’s what also makes it all the more aggravating once the music dies.