You'd be hard pressed to find an actor who's had a comeback quite like Robert Downey Jr.'s. Covering all bases with clever career choices and thus hammering home the point that he is now, more than ever, all good looks and versatility, during the last two years Downey Jr. has pleased the studios with Iron Man, the summer blockbuster par excellence; pleased the Academy with his excellent comic turn as worthy actor Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder, and is now pleasing those who might have been waiting for a more “serious” role. And that's not even mentioning Sherlock Holmes.
But it would be beside the point to focus solely on Downey Jr.'s performance, effectively restrained and sympathetic as it is, because The Soloist is, contrary to its title, a buddy movie of sorts.
Downey Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times reporter in dire need of a good story, who happens upon the homeless Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a former child prodigy and cello student at Juilliard, who is now playing a two-stringed violin on the streets due to severe mental illness. At first, Lopez is curious but cautious towards his new interviewee, giving us a good glimpse into the mind of many journalists. Every potentially interesting person becomes a story, a look into another world, but is always kept at a professional distance.
His relationship with Nathaniel, however, slowly deepens into a real friendship, as Lopez tries to help the homeless man, but soon realises that this is easer said than done.
The Soloist could have ended up as a mawkish tale of predictable personal development, but luckily the Hallmark touches, such as the need to douse every poignant moment in soppy strings, are few and far between. There is no neat solution to Nathaniel's problems, just as there doesn't seem to be a neat solution to all the miserable lives lived on the Los Angeles streets.
Instead, there is almost Gothic chaos when Lopez spends the night with Nathaniel outside the homeless shelter, and all of the residents wander menacingly about like distorted caricatures from Nurse Ratched's ward. Nathaniel Ayers is the soothing, but troubled musical centre of this disturbing place, and Jamie Foxx delivers a
solid performance complete with neurotic mumbling and moments of serene musical bliss, while never, as Downey Jr.'s own Kirk Lazarus would have it, going “full retard”.
With Atonement, director Joe Wright proved he could turn a seemingly unfilmable novel into a plausible film, and The Soloist reveals the same knack for fleshing out a relatively simple narrative into modern filmic poetry. It doesn't hurt that Wright has yet again teamed up with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, creating a stylistically confident, although not always too subtle, symbolism. As Nathaniel Ayers tries out his new cello, Steve Lopez listens, and the camera takes off in the Angelino underpass and soars above the Los Angeles highways.