A SCREENPLAY about a schizophrenic cellist who drops out of Juilliard, only to be discovered by a jaded journalist on the streets of Los Angeles, wouldn't pass most people's schmaltz test. Unless, that is, the screenplay was based on a true story. Which The Soloist is. So here goes.
Robert Downey Jr.'s shirts fit him entirely too well in his portrayal of Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez—but everything else about him is plausible. Lopez is a thirsty hack, one who's constantly conflicted between exploiting and helping his subjects. One such subject is Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) a believably incoherent homeless cellist. Ayers is nearly impossible to redirect during interviews, has little insight into his psychological condition, and at one point, yes, becomes violent in a bid to escape the voices in his head.
Foxx offers as unflinching of a portrayal of mental illness as I've seen on film, and—especially during scenes that feature a young Ayers (Justin Martin)—The Soloist does a marvelous job showing why most folks suffering from schizophrenia in America lose their families, homes, and connections to the world.
But true stories are often more complex than made-up ones, and Susannah Grant's screenplay fumbles when it tries to impose a grander narrative over the unlikely friendship between these two men. At times, The Soloist seems to be about the death of the newspaper industry (Steven Root, who played Milton in Office Space, cameos as Lopez's cubicle mate). At other times, the film delves into the Dickensian side of homelessness (which rings hollow, despite the sweeping shots of Skid Row degradation). Ayers also plays a lot of Beethoven on his cello, so maybe it's just a film about Beethoven?
Towards the movie's conclusion, though, Downey Jr. is kind enough to smack the audience over the head with the film's Message: The Soloist, it turns out, is about the "dignity of being loyal to something you believe in, and holding on to it, believing—if nothing else—that it will carry you home." That's pretty ham-fisted—but I must be more of a believer in the power of true stories than I realized, because despite all of The Soloist's drawbacks, the ideas behind it still rang true.