Soloist, The

Part biopicture based on a true story, part chronicle of major urban problems (poverty, unemployment, physical and mental illness), part tale of intimate friendship between two vastly disparate men, but not satisfying on any of these levels, “The Soloist” is a vastly disappointing picture.  Thematically diffuse and technically shapeless, it's the kind of narrative that even pros such as Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., two actors I admire, cannot salvage or at least make more engaging.


British director Joe Wright, who has specialized in period pieces and literary adaptations (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement”), proves to be the wrong director for this quintessentially Los Angeles story about a homeless schizoid genius who struggles to rise above his lower-depth milieu with the help of a guardian angel, a kind-hearted journalist.


The movie, you may recall, was on the Oscar radar last year, but was pushed back by DreamWorks/Paramount to this spring and will open nationally April 24.  “The Soloist” is so poorly adapted by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) from Steve Lopez's touching memoir, and so heavy-handedly and tastelessly helmed by Wright that it is bound to be dismissed by most critics and live a short theatrical life–despite the star power of Jamie Foxx (Oscar-winner for “Ray”) and Robert Downey Jr. (Oscar-nominee for “Chaplin” and “Tropic Thunder”).

One of my teachers at Columbia used to describe movies such as “The Soloist” as tweeners, that is, features that are not commercial enough to appeal to mainstream audiences, not arty enough to lure the arthouse crowds, and not challenging enough to qualify as an edgy indie.  In other words, the movie tries to please every target audience and ends up pleasing no one.

Strangely, this timely, potentially poignant tale is not even inspirational in a way most Hollywood middlebrow sagas usually are.  Occasionally, we are touched by the stirring power of music by Bach and Beethoven (how can we not?), and how it can transport all involved in listening, the poor and the rich, the pros and the amateurs, elevating them into a higher, surreal, almost fantasy-like plateau.


The movie is based on the actual story of Steve Lopez, a disenchanted Los Angeles Times journalist who embarked on a transformative journey after encountering “strange” people in the hidden streets of Los Angeles.  Here is how it began. In April 2005, columnist Lopez launched a series of riveting features about Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, an astonishingly talented yet utterly lost street musician Lopez had happened upon pushing his shopping cart and playing with virtuosity a two-stringed violin on the hard-knock streets of Skid Row. Shortly thereafter, Lopez's stories became a phenomenon unto themselves, attracting the attention of the ruling politicos.

The film's central theme deals with sort of a love story between yet another variation of “Odd Couple,” a white pro and a black amateur who seemingly have nothing in common, and with the evolution of an unlikely friendship based on emotional bonding, mental and physical abuse, and ultimately sacrifice, particularly by the journo who goes out of his way to accommodate the schizoid, through the redemptive power of music.

Jamie Fox plays Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless schizophrenic on the streets of Los Angeles, blessed with a strong, mysterious penchant for classical music.   On the outside, he shows symptoms of dementia, though the movie makes a point not to label (or diagnose) him too specifically.   Suffice is to say that his mode of behavior and speech patterns, not to mention the way he dresses and combs his hair, changes unpredictably from scene to scene (often distracting our attention from the dialogue and more significant issues).

It sounds like a cliché, which we have seen numerous times before, but the key concept is that deep down this “crazy” and potentially violent man is buried the soul of a sensitive and refined man, who's obsessed and transported by music in a way that most humans are not. 

Ayers is contrasted with Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), an ambitious, caring, and sensitive (rare combination for a profession I know quite well, being a practitioner myself) journo for the L.A. Times who meets Nathaniel on the street and immediately becomes intrigued and even obsessed by him.  Lopez writes a column about Nathaniel Ayers, which gets immense attention and turns the homeless man into a recognizable persona if not outright celeb.

While understandably scribe Grant decided to fictionalize the two characters and their dramatic situations to some extent, I think she has also made some errors in adaptation.   For example, to add an extra layer of isolation to the columnist's world, she created an ex-wife for Lopez, Mary Weston (Catherine Keener in a thankless role) with whom he shares a teenage son, while in reality Lopez is happily married.  If the scenes between Lopez and Weston are dull, it's due to the writing, not acting.  The story would have been more powerful if it focused on the two men, because Weston's part is passive–she listens and supports Lopez; it's also hard to believe that they were once married as there is no erotic or any expressive charge between them.  

Grant has also compressed Ayers' two sisters into one character, even though the two femmes were vastly different and had a different kind of bond with their brother.  Finally, quite inexplicably, Grant has adjusted the chronology of the friendship, supposedly in order to maintain dramatic pacing.  The step-by-step emergence of a truly emotional bond–a classic case of co-dependence–is much more compelling and realistic in the book than on the screen.

Through Lopez's investigative reportage, conveyed in heavy-ended scenes and blunt voice-over narration as well as some flashbacks, we learn that Ayers was once a cello virtuoso at one of the country's best schools, Juilliard.

Unfortunately, rhythmically the movie is shapeless, and structurally a mess.  Ultimately, the narrative tries to cover so many interesting issues in such a short period of time that it comes across as shallow, confusing, and jarring in its sharp transitions from one locale to another, or from one mood to the next. 

It's too bad that helmer Wright can't find more vivid and compelling ways to depict the power of music the way, say, Milos Forman did in “Amadeus,” in the relationship between the mediocre and insanely jealous Salieri and the brilliant genius Mozart.  Instead, what we get here are routine reaction shots and close-ups of  Foxx and Downey Jr., often with their eyes closed while listening to music, be it inside rehearsals or concerts at the Disney Hall or outside, in L.A.'s down-and-dirty streets and tunnels.

Structurally, the movie contains the requisite climaxes and anti-climaxes, vocal arguments and soft reconciliations, moments of catharsis and relapse, bursts of sheer madness and calm normalcy.

No doubt “The Soloist” is well-intentioned and meant as a positive, uplifting portriat of contemporary L.A.–despite its escalating urban problems, but honest meaning is not enough to make a good picture. 


Nathaniel Ayers – Jamie Foxx
Steve Lopez – Robert Downey Jr.
Mary Weston – Catherine Keener
Graham Claydon – Tom Hollander
Jennifer Ayers – Lisagay Hamilton
David Carter – Nelsan Ellis
Leslie Bloom – Rachael Harris
Curt Reynolds – Stephen Root
Flo Ayers – Lorraine Toussaint

A Paramount release of a DreamWorks/Universal presentation, in association with StudioCanal and Participant Media of a Between Two Trees production, a Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment production, in association with Working Title Films.
Produced by Gary Foster, Russ Krasnoff.
Executive producers, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Jeff Skoll, Patricia Whitcher.
Co-producers, Rikki Lea Bestall, Eric N. Heffron, Leeann Stonebreaker. Directed by Joe Wright.
Screenplay, Susannah Grant, based on the book by Steve Lopez.
Camera, Seamus McGarvey; editor, Paul Tothill; music, Dario Marianelli; production designer, Sarah Greenwood; supervising art director, Gregory A. Berry; art director, Suzan Wexler; set designers, Andrew Birdzell, Roger Lundeen, Jim Wallis; set decorator, Julie K. Smith; costume designer, Jacqueline Durran; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Jose Antonio Garcia; supervising sound editors/designers, Craig Berkey, Chris Scarabosio; visual effects supervisor, John Moffatt; visual effects, Double Negative; assistant director, Eric N. Heffron; second unit director, Thomas Q. Napper.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.

Running time: 116 Minutes