In “The Soloist,” director Joe Wright continues the exploration of romanticism he began in “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement.” The former reminded us that, as Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope observed, the only lasting love that comes out of marriage is at the end of an English novel; the latter suggested that romance might be a delusion. “The Soloist” reminds us that when romantic, happy endings aren’t in the cards, we have to play the hands we are dealt.
Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr., “Tropic Thunder”) is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He’s slovenly, but intellectually quick, not unlike his character in “Zodiac.” One day, he notices a street musician playing Beethoven on a two-stringed violin and strikes up a conversation with the man. The talk is one-sided, as Nathaniel (Jamie Foxx, “The Kingdom”) is schizophrenic, but his babbling contains enough reality for Lopez to find some sense and the kernel of a column in it. Investigating, he finds that Nathaniel Ayers was a student at Juilliard. How did he get from there to homelessness and the streets of El Lay?
One of his readers sends a cello “ the man’s original instrument “ to Lopez for Nathaniel. A relationship develops between the two men and Lopez, assuming he knows what’s best for his street friend, forces Nathaniel to check into a charity/halfway house against his will. Lopez finds the man a tiny, cheap apartment where he can practice. He talks someone (Tom Hollander, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”) with the philharmonic into letting Nathaniel attend rehearsals. This tiresomely religious soul forces Nathaniel to pray with him, but the musician can comprehend no god higher than his friend Mr. Lopez.
GOOD WILL AND COERCION
All this good will and coercion come to a head when a recital is arranged for Nathaniel and it’s too much for the man to bear.
Lopez is bewildered at Nathaniel’s response until a friend at the paper (Catherine Keener, “Hamlet 2″) suggests that he is exploiting this unfortunate soul merely for his value as a continuing story, and that if Lopez isn’t willing to assume the responsibility for what he’s doing, then allowing Nathaniel to return to the streets might be the best thing for him.
We in the audience want that good ol’ happy Hollywood ending, but what we get from the screenplay by Susannah Grant (“Charlotte’s Web”), adapted from the book by the real Lopez, is life instead.
Not life at its worst, but life. Romanticism need not apply. Reality may not be completely satisfying when we’ve seen dozens of MGM musicals and want our movies to end with a dance and a smile, but, dammit, it is what it is.
The cast is uniformly good, especially Downey, who is developing an expertise in smart but emotionally damaged characters. The slow realization that maybe Lopez doesn’t know what’s best for Nathaniel as he becomes more familiar with life on the streets is brilliant. Is it too late to take that Oscar away from Pacino for “Scent of a Woman” and give it to Downey for “Chaplin”? Whoo-ah.
“The Soloist” is a good actors’ movie. Fortunately, it’s full of good actors.