These days, as the newspaper industry continues to tank, Hollywood, after years of a love (All the President’s Men) and hate (Absence of Malice) relationship with the press, is now serving up a new romantic hero: the print journalist.
We saw Russell Crowe take on the mantle in State of Play, and now, in The Soloist, Robert Downey Jr. also morphs into an ink-stained do-gooder. Just like Crowe's character, Downey’s Steve Lopez is a standoffish, somewhat self-serving, Saab-driving, hard-drinking soul who’s acutely aware that his kind is going the way of Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The Soloist, starring Downey and Jamie Foxx, is a movie about friendship and homelessness and mental illness and the potential for art to heal. It does all this and, for the most part, does it compellingly, save for a few false notes.
But The Soloist is also a meditation on the power of the press at the same time that the very phrase—the press—is fading faster than it takes a blogger to post an entry on a MacBook Air. As Mary Westin (Catherine Keener), Lopez’s editor and ex-wife says, “The stock price drops, we lose reporters. The stock price drops again, we lose more reporters.”
So Lopez gets to play the lone reporter, trolling the streets of Los Angeles for stories while his colleagues exit the newsroom en masse, lugging the contents of their desk in overflowing boxes. Along the way, Lopez stumbles on Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Foxx), a homeless man who just happens to be playing a two-stringed violin under a statue of Beethoven. Lopez strikes up a conversation with Ayers, who mentions, in passing, that he went to Juilliard.
Intrigued, Lopez does a little digging. Yes, the man hauling around the shopping cart and muttering to himself did indeed go to Juilliard. Yes, he was a big musical talent with a big musical future until, that is, schizophrenia grabbed a hold of him. Lopez writes a column about Ayers; the help starts pouring in. One reader sends in her treasured cello. A member of the local orchestra offers free cello lessons. Everyone, it seems, wants to help.
But Ayers isn’t so sure that help is what he needs. There’s a fine line between helping and patronizing, between befriending and exploiting a troubled man. And Ayers might be mentally ill, but he’s no fool.
Directed by Joe Wright, (Atonement), The Soloist provides a glimpse into the mind of madness: Unlike, say, A Beautiful Mind, where the voices in John Nash’s head were depicted as a character played by Paul Bettany, Ayers’ illness is depicted as aural clutter, a chorus of insidiously sweet, anonymous voices warning him that everyone else is laughing at him, but only they really love him.
The voices send him spiraling into fear and panic, and from the fear, on occasion, violence happens. It is to the movie’s credit that it does not sugarcoat the frustrations of mental illness. Ayers, as played Jamie Foxx with a mixture of wide-eyed innocence, tattered elegance and wary menace, is no Hollywood angelic naïf.
This is possibly because The Soloist is based on a true story, a book by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez about his friendship with the real-life Ayers. Still, in the translation from print to screen, the filmmakers made some interesting choices. In real life, Lopez is a family man who frequently brought Ayers home to hang out with his wife and kids. The cinematic Lopez, on the other hand, is a self-absorbed loner with an ex-wife for a boss, a man given to boozy solo dances in his cluttered home as Neil Diamond blasts on the hi-fi.
This was done, perhaps, in the name of dramatic tension, to create a direct parallel between the isolation of the man living life along the straight and narrow, and the man confined to the outskirts. It also leaves the title of the film open to interpretation: To whom does The Soloist refer?
Ultimately, for all the attention paid to Ayers, this is Lopez’s story, and it is Downey’s movie. Foxx acquits himself well in a difficult role. It would be easy to go for the big, showy stuff, but Foxx keeps his performance, small, contained, interior. Still, it’s hard not to remember that you’re watching Foxx doing a really fine job playing Nathaniel Ayers. There’s a difference between mimicry and morphing. Downey, on the other hand, morphs. He’s the straight man in this movie, but as long as he’s on screen, it’s impossible to stop watching him.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.
This article contains information corrected from the original version.