One look at director Joe Wright’s (“Atonement”) latest film and you think you have it figured out. What it looks like from trailers and clips is your average awards-bait film; a disabled savant whose inner talent is brought out by his friendship with a saner person. For the most part, this assumption is correct, but a surprising lack of a few major conventions of the feel-good Oscar flick, and the strength of the two lead actors makes what could have been another sappy paint-by-numbers experience into something actually worth seeing.
Based on a true story, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), a take on the real-life journalist for the Los Angeles Times, discovers homeless musical virtuoso Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), who plays on the Los Angeles streets with a violin that only has two-strings. Moved by the man’s ability, Lopez writes an article on him and gets a cello sent in as a gift for Ayers from a similarly moved reader. What convention would dictate at this point is to have the instrument awaken the full talent in Ayers, his career in orchestrated music beginning in a glorious spectacle of climactic melodrama.
Thankfully though, screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) takes the plot in a new direction, and it’s this deviation from the expected that gives “The Soloist” its vitality.
Rather than his cello-inspired career launching off, a concert put on for him by Lopez and a kind promoter (Tom Hollander) drags out Nathaniel’s social anxieties and schizophrenia into full on freak-out mode. After the concert fails, Lopez continues to follow Ayers around in his daily life, and is systematically dragged into the bleak and almost horror-like portrayal of the real life of L.A.’s homeless population. The film’s presentation of the homeless dances between progressive sympathy and demented schaudenfreude, and it’s wonderful to behold.
Ultimately, the film doesn’t reach the predictable, cheery ending that warms audience’s hearts without inspiring any type of political action. Leaving a screening of “The Soloist” is almost a bittersweet sensation, but the movie benefits greatly from it, appearing all the more realistic for it. Not that it doesn’t hit the worn and dated plot points one can expect from Oscar-fodder, but the overall ingenuity of the story more than glazes over its more stereotypical moments.
The main draw of the film, however, is not how the script twists and turns, but how the two leads capture the idiosyncrasies of their respective roles. Complementing the film’s bleak turn away from a feel-good film, both Downey Jr. and Foxx come off deeply invested in making these characters appear real.
Downey Jr.’s mellow jerk reporter and Foxx’s demented virtuoso feel rare in their depth and complexity, mostly due to the film giving them its undivided focus for most of the runtime. Lesser films would have been bogged down by the various possible subplots – such as Lopez’s estranged relationship with his fictional wife or the relationship between the two men and the concert promoter.
Being a film about the individual relationships we have with music, the soundtrack of “The Soloist” is comprised of the lofty orchestral pieces one could anticipate, their integration into the film’s narrative moving without being too grating on our tear-ducts. The cinematography is an intimate collection of close-up shots bridged with apt costume design and lighting for a generally decent visual package that doesn’t risk much, but still manages to hit the desired emotional notes.
If there is a gem to be found in the film’s design, it’s in the sound, especially Ayer’s various instrumental performances. The film captures every vibration of every string with such tenacity that even those uninterested in classical music can feel the poetry in them.
Straying off the beaten path is rarely as rewarding as it is in “The Soloist.” The film’s side-stepping of its genre’s usual narrative arch is its greatest asset, and the poetically intimate performances of both Downey Jr. and Foxx elevate the film to a “must see” plateau. The presentation is an average, mellow variety, but the subtle details of the sound design make the film almost worth listening to without dialogue. We can only hope that the plot changes in “The Soloist” catch on, so we can actually start caring about Oscar-worthy films again.