Hollywood loves to stereotype people with mental illnesses as being merely quirky, or easy to cure if you just give 'em a lot of the right kind of love. The Soloist aims for a more realistic portrayal, and even tries to build awareness about the problems of homeless people in America. Unfortunately, the overall film isn't compelling, and the plot falls into the easy traps of traditional melodrama.
Steve Lopez's nonfiction book was adapted by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, Catch and Release). Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is always on the hunt for more material to fill his LA Times column space, even cannibalizing his own cycling accident to tell a good story. When he encounters Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) playing violin by a statue of Beethoven, and learns that this homeless man once attended Juilliard, he figures he's hit the columnist jackpot. Little by little he starts to try to "fix" Nathaniel -- finding him a cello and a safe place to play, taking him to symphony rehearsals -- but it's not all that easy. And naturally, Steve's life starts to change too, and he's not sure how to handle it.
The movie doesn't leave us with easy answers or a pat ending. It tries hard to show us characters and situations that can't be wrapped up nicely as the triumph of the human spirit. The movie reminded me at times of Reign Over Me (my review), but without the "blame it on 9/11" target. There's no single reason why Nathaniel is the way he is, as the movie shows us in a series of flashbacks.The movie also tries to show us Nathaniel's point of view during times when he's struggling with his illness or conversely, becoming absorbed in the music he loves. While interesting, the changes in point of view from Steve to Nathaniel, back and forth, diffuse the focus of the film.
The Soloist has no continuous subplot, only minor snippets of story that never quite gel. The movie opens with shots of newspapers being printed and delivered, and there's a lot of talk about layoffs and how Young People Don't Read Papers Anymore ... but this storyline vanishes once Steve gets involved in Nathaniel's life. A running storyline about the raccoons in Steve's yard seems to pay off only in gross humor -- unless it's meant to parallel the way people think about the homeless, in which case it's too goofy a comparison to work. I have to wonder if earlier cuts of the film were longer and some subplots were cut -- blink and you might miss Stephen Root entirely -- but what's left doesn't complement the main plot, it's just distracting.
I love Robert Downey Jr. in just about anything, but his character is too similar to other roles he's played, and it feels like I'm watching Downey, not a reporter/columnist. Jamie Foxx, on the other hand, is so subsumed in his character that he's barely recognizable at times, especially with his odd costumes and Beethoven-like haircut. The difficulty is that their friendship doesn't quite feel believable -- there's no chemistry between the two actors. I know that's normally the kind of phrase reserved for romantic comedies, but you need to feel some kind of spark of connection for any friendship, and Downey and Foxx's scenes together often fell flat.
The Soloist was directed by Joe Wright, who previously brought us Atonement and that anemic Keira Knightley-starring version of Pride and Prejudice. And maybe the reason why I didn't like Pride and Prejudice ties into my indifferent feelings overall about The Soloist -- I felt like Wright sucked all the liveliness out of Austen's lighthearted novel and left us a romance with a surprising amount of angst. The characters in The Soloist all seem to lead difficult and unhappy lives, and the changes throughout the film just make them differently unhappy. Catherine Keener adds a sparky humor to the supporting ex-wife role, but even her editor seems weighed down with the burdens of the world.
The Soloist obviously wants to avoid the usual "triumph of the human spirit" or "love conquers all" plots, but still ends up following a familiar path with the two characters who each help one another. The homeless characters in the film are portrayed respectfully and with care, and the scenes that take place around the homeless shelter are often moving. But the strange relationship between the two main characters should be the centerpiece of the film, and it never manages to draw us in and make us care about what happens.The feeling that the characters get as they listen, enraptured, to the music from so many different types of musicians isn't something that transfers to us as we watch the film.