In the hands of another actor, Nathaniel could have easily become a character instead of a real person (see Sean Penn in I Am Sam).
There is nothing glamorous about the Los Angeles we see in director Joe Wright’s The Soloist. The film trespasses through neighborhoods and onto streets where it has no business being. What takes place in this world should not be documented. Here we see people to whom the phrase "down on his luck" no longer applies. It is here that we discover how easily people can slip from a life of normalcy to utter destitution.
It is also here that Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.), a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, meets a former music prodigy named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) who is living on the streets. Nathaniel is still trying to make beautiful music, though his only instrument is a violin with two strings. Lopez finds out that Nathaniel was once one of the most gifted students at Julliard and decides to write a column about how he got to where he is now.
Lopez works to get Nathaniel off the street, even going so far as to arrange accommodations at a local homeless shelter and later an apartment where he can practice his music with a private instructor. What Lopez is trying to do is noble but also naïve. Nathaniel’s mental state (which is assumed to be schizophrenia but never confirmed) prevents him from trusting the indoors where too often his past demons attacked him. It is this struggle between Lopez’s altruism and Nathaniel’s phobia which pulls the two men together rather than pushing them apart.
Wright (Atonement), shows us a side of Los Angeles we rarely see. The environment is as much a character as Lopez or Nathaniel. Music is weaved beautifully throughout the film as a stark contrast to the despair that is often surrounding Nathaniel. Wright has used this true story, from the book by Lopez developed from his Times columns, to show how passion can be the one thing that saves us.
Downey, Jr. and Foxx are absolutely terrific. In the hands of another actor, Nathaniel could have easily become a character instead of a real person (see Sean Penn in I Am Sam). Foxx spews Nathaniel’s jumbled, word salad diatribes effortlessly as though his brain is moving so fast that his mouth is just trying to keep up. Foxx rarely makes eye contact with anyone, but when he does we can see decades of defeat and suffering behind his eyes.
Downey, Jr.’s performance is equally compelling. As always, he mixes wonderful comic timing and dramatic weight seamlessly. He is most times physically separated from everyone else as he tries to avoid commitment or responsibility to anyone or anything. Downey, Jr. is never once seen acting because he so easily becomes the character instead of just imitating emotions.
The music in the film is beautiful and moving. Wright does take many chances in the film which might have fallen flat from another director. There is one particular music interlude which Wright has weaved perfectly into the film which gives us a chance to experience what Nathaniel might be experiencing.
The Soloist is a wonderful film with two actors who are able to share equal weight on the screen without ever stepping on one another. Their performance is almost like a perfect dance choreographed to music only they can hear and which we are lucky enough to watch. | Matthew F. Newlin