The Soloist

Starring Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr, Catherine Keener and Tom Hollander. Directed by Joe Wright.
Rated M (mature themes and coarse language). 116 mins.

Steve Lopez of The Los Angeles Times was bereft of a topic for his column in 2005 when he wandered into Skid Row and stumbled across a down-and-out man playing classical violin with only two strings. Lopez wrote about him in his next and subsequent columns and eventually published a book with a title that pretty well sums up this movie: The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music.

The fiddler who idolised Beethoven was Nathaniel Ayers (played by Jamie Foxx). He lived on the streets, he carried all his belongings in a shopping cart and he was clearly in a precarious mental state. Lopez (Robert Downey Jr) was intrigued and started digging around to find out more about him. It emerged that Ayers had been a gifted young music student with a promising future as a cellist when mental problems caused him to drop out of the Juilliard School, and Lopez embarked on a mission to restore this sad outcast to a position in society commensurate with his musical talent. “This guy … he’s got a gift but he’s lost his way.”

Ayers is a schizophrenic. He hears voices, he behaves erratically and he speaks continuously and at a fast rate without seeming to hear what others are saying to him. When he plays his music, however, he is transported. (It is hard not to be reminded of Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar-winning performance as David Helfgott in Shine.) Yet for all his problems Ayers is a man of fierce independent spirit and an awareness of the way his behaviour renders him unacceptable in the wider world. So getting him to accept a ticket to a concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic becomes a metaphor for his at least partial recovery.

In the screenplay by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, 28 Days), helping Ayers and becoming his friend is the means by which Lopez puts his own life in perspective and comes to terms with personal and career problems of his own. It is a neat way of wrapping up the film in tried-and-true Hollywood tradition, but it doesn’t solve the problem that the relationship between Lopez and Ayers is limited in dramatic terms.  The newspaperman does his best to improve Ayers’ wellbeing, but his efforts are repeatedly thwarted by Ayers’ non-cooperation and/or erratic responses. For example, Lopez organises a room where he can play uninterrupted, but Ayers refuses, declaring that under the bridge of a freeway is the perfect place for his music. Variations on this sort of impasse make up most of the film without advancing the storyline very much.
But no one could accuse The Soloist of not having its heart in the right place. It is an eloquent plea for the plight of the mentally ill and of the homeless (of which there are said to be 90,000 in greater Los Angeles).  Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) handles it with taste and restraint, and his cast is impeccable. Foxx’s performance as Ayers has a quiet dignity that is impressive, and Downey’s Lopez is a nice balance between idealism and frustration.

NBC Universal  Out September 3

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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