Synopsis: A schizophrenic, homeless musician from Skid Row, Los Angeles dreams of playing at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
There’s no crescendo in Joe Wright’s drama.
It seemed like a dream team: consummate actors Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, a classy director in Atonement’s Joe Wright, and a screenplay by Susannah Grant, who won an Oscar for Erin Brockovich.
So why did The Soloist strike a decidedly off-note with audiences in the US, selling just $31.7 million worth of tickets? My guess is that the drama based on the true story of the Los Angeles Times columnist (Downey) who discovered a former child musical prodigy (Foxx) living on the streets of L.A. didn’t resonate for several reasons.
One is that, with due respect to my colleagues, films centred on newspaper journos aren’t inherently interesting or relatable, as we saw recently with Russell Crowe in State of Play: here, even Downey struggles to bring much charm or charisma to his character. Secondly, while this may sound callous, setting a movie in the netherworld of the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill and junkies, isn’t a place most of us want to visit or experience. Lastly, there is a paucity of big, dramatic, memorable moments, as the narrative offers instead a series of small-scale incidents and events.
Downey’s character Steve Lopez encounters Foxx’s Nathaniel Anthony Ayers in a park playing a two-stringed violin, next to a shopping cart filled with all his worldly possessions. Intending to write a column about the motor-mouthed, oddly-dressed vagrant, Lopez discovers Nathaniel dropped out of the Juilliard School. Gradually he pieces together his story, told in flashbacks, from his happy but poor childhood in Cleveland (“you got somethin’ special,” his mother tells him), through his meltdown in New York and descent to L.A.’s Skid Row.
An unlikely friendship develops as Lopez finds an apartment for Nathaniel, which he initially rejects, arranges for him to receive cello lessons from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal cellist, and urges him to get medication. When Nathaniel starts to exhibit an unhealthy dependency on his new friend, Lopez is forced to question how much he can help a guy who won’t accept he needs it.
Nathaniel’s disease isn’t diagnosed, although it’s suggested he’s schizophrenic. Much of the film is set in the Lamp, a community centre which assists the homeless, and some of its denizens appeared as extras, adding to the film’s authenticity.
Happily married in real life, Lopez is depicted here as a lonely divorcee who has a prickly relationship with his editor/ex-wife (Catherine Keener), probably to imply he has something in common with his troubled friend, in that they’re both outcasts.
As noted, Downey isn’t given much leeway in the stereotyped role of a hard-bitten, cynical journo who finds some humanity and higher purpose in his relationship with Nathaniel. Foxx is the film’s major strength, brilliantly succeeding in portraying a guy who communicates via his music when his words and mind fail him.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
A month of movies with an edge. Saturday nights in April.