The Soloist is a very serious-minded, slickly produced and emotionally ambitious movie about a middle-class journalist - a star columnist on a huge metropolitan daily - who discovers a homeless man living on the streets near his paper: a bedraggled, verbose, shabby wreck of a guy who carries all his possessions in a shopping cart and bags, but who may be possessed of musical genius.
The journalist, based on real-life Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, befriends the man, based on Nathaniel Ayers, the subject of numerous Lopez columns and of his book. Nathaniel is an ex-Juilliard student who keeps gabbing about Beethoven, his personal god. Steve brings Nathaniel a cello and tries to help him off the streets and, at least partially, back into the world of classical music.
But Nathaniel, who begins to worship his new benefactor, is afraid of emerging from his cavernous, Skid Row world, a dangerous concrete jungle full of junkies, hookers, addicts and loonies, but one he understands. The two begin to clash - woundingly.
The Soloist may sound somewhat pretentious and condescending. But the writer, Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich), director Joe Wright (Atonement), and especially the two superb leading actors - Jamie Foxx, who plays Nathaniel, and Robert Downey Jr., who plays Steve - elevate the film. It's not the great movie its makers obviously wanted, but it's certainly a good one, and it has great moments. It's also a memorable showcase for two of the best contemporary movie actors, both at the top of their form.
Foxx has the showier role and gives us, without vanity, the greasy, street-worn look of Nathaniel, his isolation and schizoid ramblings, his obsessive clinging to his few possessions - including the cello Steve brings him. Foxx doesn't do any obvious heart-tugging, but shows us how maddening Nathaniel can be - and, in one scene, how potentially explosive. One of the movie's great moments is the heartfelt longing and happiness we see on Nathaniel's face when Steve takes him to hear Beethoven, played live by the L.A. Philharmonic and conductor Esa Pekka-Salonen.
Downey, meanwhile, delivers another knockout performance, in a quieter but no less magnetic key. He plays Steve as a tough, smart, streetwise guy. But he also taps open a quiet, nearly unspoken sensitivity, his big dark spaniel eyes melting with unsentimental sympathy when he watches Nathaniel and hears him play.
Screenwriter Grant slights some things. We never completely understand Nathaniel's breakdown, and there seem to be scenes missing out of the Steve-Nathaniel relationship too.
But I liked The Soloist. I admire its portrayal of how art can transform lives and transcend sorrows. As the movie so aptly reminds us, a world without Beethoven would be a much less joyous place. So, for that matter, would a world without Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.