Robert Downey, Jr. strengthens Paramount’s sad, enigmatic tale of two lonely Los Angeles men, The Soloist. As journalist Steve Lopez, upon whose book this film is based, Mr. Downey turns the darkest moments into a silent resolve to commit to something higher and his performance as the searching writer is completely absorbing.
But its effect is muted in a movie, which, like the dreadful Slumdog Millionaire, is determined to drag us along the gutter for a few crumbs in reward. In a crude, violent, and stark visualization of what it takes—and means—to be thy brother’s keeper, The Soloist is an irrepressible downer.
As he did with the overrated Atonement and the over-praised Pride and Prejudice, director Joe Wright lets the pictures overwhelm the people. Beginning with one man pedaling his heart out in the City of Angels, Wright, with writer Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), unspools Steve Lopez’s long, arduous tale.
Following a close call with death, the newspaper columnist, narrating his own story, wants to get serious, looking for something other than sneers from his fellow Los Angeles Times staffers, an entrenched, embittered bunch that seem to know their days are numbered. No such sympathy comes his way, even from his ex-wife, who is also his editor (the always excellent Catherine Keener). On cue, Steve hears the distant call—from the fingertips of a mentally ill, homeless man playing music in the park (Jamie Foxx, on the money) named Nathaniel. When Steve encounters the disheveled artist—who is clearly not all there—Nathaniel mutters that he studied music at Julliard.
Firing off Mr. Downey’s trademark light sarcasm—the film’s only civilized humor—skeptical Steve is on the trail of a post-traumatic story with spirit, hunting poor, homeless Nathaniel like helpless prey in the wild. The Soloist is obviously patronizing in this sense, which Downey’s and Foxx’s star turns make harder to notice. After confirming part of Nathaniel’s story, Steve jumps in his beater to search for the lost musician, finding Nathaniel where he keeps finding him throughout the movie, in a tunnel.
Thanks to expressive Mr. Downey, we’re right with him, because the prospect of an able man being pulled out of a tailspin, especially in this depressing Obama Nation, is unequivocally good. With the mystery of a man’s soul planted in the question of what happened at Julliard, we see flashbacks of a boy in the basement and a car in flames, and, at last, we hear Nathaniel play his instrument—the cello. It is the movie’s perfect moment. Out of this weary, haggard man without a home comes a fine piece of music. A flock of pigeons swoops down, and two of them break off to glide upward in separate directions.
Soon, mysteries are revealed and, with neon religion and vilified atheists, it’s clear that we’re headed for some sort of salvation. But at what price? Steve is, after all, exploiting the mentally ill man for personal profit. By opening doors of opportunity for Nathaniel—and writing about it—he’s getting the mayor’s attention, winning an award, and he’s weighing a book deal. All this while Nathaniel withdraws once and again, receding further from reality each time, though not before gaining private admission to hear a rehearsal of the city’s orchestra. Sure, he’s making music, but, in the gloomy Soloist, something bad has to happen—and it does.
While Steve reaches deeper into the city’s skid row subculture, with agonizingly graphic scenes of human misery like Wright’s Dunkirk scene in Atonement, Nathaniel crawls from the gutter long enough to see that he’s being used—by a holy roller, too—and he lashes out. The reality of Steve’s redemption and Nathaniel’s renaissance comes crashing down in a climactic outburst. With his ex and his homeless shelter contact having warned him of his ways and limits, Steve pulls back and pipes down.
Then, comes the epiphany, and therein lies the movie’s message—that he who sets out to rehabilitate his fellow man is, by helping others, healing his own sinful wounds—he is “born again”. Of course, after being pounded with images of Hurricane Katrina and the morgue, prayerful moments, and fantastic color displays during a musical interlude, this ending (closing notes leave Nathaniel’s status unresolved) comes as no surprise. With its final embrace of faith, The Soloist plays Steve as a narcissist playing Nathaniel the schizophrenic musician—and is not exactly an inspiring rendition.