The Soloist

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. They eclipse everyone around them in “The Soloist.” But the question is this: are you up for a genuinely discouraging story that grows from the real life roots of a contemporary American problem? Americans tend to be problem solvers, and when there is no solution, we sink, if just a bit. This is an excellent and exhausting movie; your choice, of course.

Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, lives with the ever present pressure of the paper’s deadline for his column. Always on the prowl for a human interest story, he happens upon a man who introduces himself as Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man playing his two stringed violin in a city park in the shadow of a statue of Beethoven. With the looming deadline in mind, Lopez begins to question Ayers. Among the scrambled words that pour forth from the street musician, “Julliard” is the one that grabs Lopez’s attention. Ayers, it seems, dropped out of Julliard at the end of his second year.

            Lopez returns to the chaos of the newsroom, confirms Ayers’ story with Julliard, and believes he has a story. When the column is published, an old woman responds by donating her cello to Ayers. This man who lives on the sidewalks of Los Angeles now has both his dream instrument and a friendship with a newspaper man who is beginning to care genuinely about him.


            Ayers’ words stream straight from his unconscious to his conversation, offering to the newsman and the audience a kind of fractured picture of what is important to him. That would be the music of Beethoven, the cello, and playing it where the acoustics of his world are best: the concrete tunnel beneath an overpass. When Lopez lures Ayers to the homeless shelter headquarters on Skid Row, he gets a grim view of crime and mental illness. The director of the shelter makes Lopez understand that Ayers doesn’t want to live indoors, doesn’t need or want the help that is being offered. Ayers is suspended somewhere between “boy genius” and adult schizophrenic.

            Because there is no way to force medication on a mentally ill person, Nathaniel Ayers will remain in a “lost colony of broken souls.” The discouraging side of this movie is that we must, contrary to natural instincts, accept that for Ayers, there is no cure. He will not realize his talent. He will continue to refuse treatment, one of 90,000 homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles. The up side of all this is the pairing of Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. Resisting all sentimentality, they use their skills to make this a tough watch. Downey is superb as the newsman who wants so badly to help but learns finally that he can’t. Foxx is convincing as the smart, talented, musician living inside a private hell – or is it really that?



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