I'll be honest with you: If it stars Robert Downey Jr., I'm probably going to like it, at least a little. Such is the case with director Joe Wright's (Atonement) new movie, The Soloist. Honestly, I'm not sure I would like this movie as much were it not for this excellent casting choice. It's amazing, the guy never disappoints, and in this movie he is a revelation. Downey digs deep to find the humanity and nuance in this true story and knocks his performance out of the park.
His costar Jamie Foxx gets an "A" for effort for fading into his character and successfully achieving what is no doubt a difficult job: realistically portraying a mentally ill man. For the most part, this is Downey's show, though the two actors work well together to give this already sentimental movie its heart. That said, it's not without some missteps. To find out what they are,
The movie's plot is made up of the kind of stuff that might be referred to as "Oscar bait." Downey plays Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, a middle-aged divorcee who appears discontent despite his relatively successful writing career. One day, Lopez meets a homeless, violin-playing schizophrenic man named Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx). He discovers that Ayers was once a talented cello player at Juilliard, and Lopez begins writing columns about this virtuoso wandering the streets. These columns captivate the city.
Wright's visuals are slick and the movie is so stylish and pristine that the effect, at times, is emotionally alienating. He's also a little trigger-happy with the middlebrow symbolism (pigeons take flight like doves, etc.). Also, there are a lot of themes coursing through this movie — homelessness and mental illness, friendship, grace, the meaning of life, the state of the American newspaper, the virtue of commitment, the healing power of music, and on and on. Just like the freeway system in LA, Wright's movie is sprawling and congested.
So while the film itself has lofty ambitions, it's the friendship between the two men that keeps this thing grounded. The closer Lopez gets to Ayers emotionally, the more he's drawn into the world of the mentally ill who inhabit parts of the city most people choose to ignore. We spend a lot of time on skid row and witness the tragic figures who migrate to the area (real-life people from this part of LA play extras). As Lopez witnesses the reality of life on the street, it becomes harder for him to resist committing to friendship with Ayers.
Thankfully the director practices restraint here and avoids easy answers when it comes to the plight of the homeless. Instead, catharsis comes slowly in the form of the budding relationship Downey and Foxx so convincingly portray. Lopez works hard to bring music back into Ayers's life and finds out the hard way that saving someone is easier said than done. The question toward the middle of the movie becomes: how do you help someone who doesn't want to be helped? Instead of railing against a system that would let the most vulnerable among us suffer indignities on the street, the movie's central relationship is a reminder that a lot of good things begin when we simply take a second to notice each other.
Photos courtesy of Paramount