Originality and innovation are highly praised in filmmaking, and rightly so. But that doesn’t mean a good film can’t be made out of familiar, shopworn materials. The story and characters in “The Soloist” are nothing new, yet the film is quietly, respectably solid. One false move here or there and it would have come off as sappy or contrived, but no — it works.
Based on L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez’ fact-based book, and directed by Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride & Prejudice”), it is the story of a journalist who befriends a homeless man. The latter is Nathaniel Ayers (played with understated confidence by Jamie Foxx), a Juilliard-trained musical prodigy who is schizophrenic (at best); the former, Steve (Robert Downey Jr., still at the top of his game), the reporter, is in need of a good story.
Nathaniel lives on the street and plays a two-stringed violin, though he was trained on the cello before dropping out of Juilliard when his mental illness took hold. When he talks, it’s a soft but steady barrage of random chattering — a tactic to prevent the voices in his head from getting a word in edgewise? No, flashbacks show he was talkative as a child, too. (In those scenes, he’s played by Justin Martin, who also played the young version of college football legend Ernie Davis in last year’s “The Express.”)
Steve’s life is messy in its own way. He is recently divorced from his wife, Mary (Catherine Keener), who is also his editor at the Times. Reference is made to their college-student son, and how he won’t return his dad’s phone calls. Our introduction to Steve suggests his place in life: Scruffy, unshaven, he’s riding his bicycle the wrong way against a herd of sleek, professional-looking cyclists; then he falls off and face-plants on the asphalt.
It’s worth noting that in real life, Steve is still married. Screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) took some creative liberties to give him more obstacles, i.e., to make him more interesting as a rumpled, hapless movie character. Furthermore, while Nathaniel lives outdoors full-time, Steve’s supposedly civilized life isn’t entirely removed from the perils of nature, either. In addition to his bike wreck, there are the raccoons that tear up his lawn, and the coyote urine that’s supposed to drive them off, which predictably winds up all over Steve. In another scene, Steve gets splashed with his own urine. I guess the joke here is that while you’d expect Nathaniel, the bum, to smell like pee, instead it’s Steve, the reporter. Yellow journalism, indeed!
Steve’s first column about Nathaniel is a hit with readers. A crazy homeless guy who’s a musical genius? It practically writes itself! A kindly old woman sends her cello to Steve, asking that he give it to Nathaniel. (Where’s a homeless man going to put a cello, you ask? Don’t be silly — there’s always room for cello.) A professional cellist (Tom Hollander) offers to give Nathaniel lessons, to pick up where Juilliard left off, then suggests Nathaniel get right with the Lord while he’s at it.
Everybody means well when it comes to someone like Nathaniel, and everybody has ideas about what Nathaniel “needs.” The film avoids convenient homilies, though — he’s neither left entirely to his own devices nor forced into a “normal” life. Thus we are spared what might have otherwise been the inevitable finale, where the homeless character would be scrubbed clean and plopped on the stage at Carnegie Hall to give the performance of his life. Regardless of whatever small changes might have been made to the story to make it more cinematic, I’m glad they didn’t Hollywoodize it too much.
Wright’s directorial style is deliberate and controlled. He makes his statements subtly, without much flash. (No five-minute large-scale tracking shots a la “Atonement” here.) Downey and Foxx, likewise, are secure enough in their talents that they can portray their characters vividly without high-decibel showoff scenes of histrionic emotion. “The Soloist” defies expectations while sticking comfortably close to the basics: a compelling story, solid performances, and capable writing and direction. Even virtuosos play the same notes as everyone else.
B (1 hr., 48 min.; )