Reviewers Note: In the spirit of ethical journalism, the readers are advised that the reviewer is a longtime musician - pianist and flutist - whose love for music gives him an inherent conflict of interest as he writes this review of The Soloist.
The above is an important point concerning The Soloist for anyone who has a lifetime love affair with music - especially those who are enthralled by the classical genre and the beauty of string instruments.
There is no doubt that such people will be captivated by the true story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a former Julliard prodigy whose schizophrenia reduces him to a homeless L.A. denizen. Played by Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx - clearly immersed to perfection in the role - Ayers subsists within the recesses of the city's highway system with his shopping cart-bound, worldly possessions, which includes a violin with only two strings that he hauntingly plays, as if he's pouring his whole being into each long and short note.
There have been so many movies that show their promotional trailers six months before their opening - only to reward anticipating viewers with mediocrity or worse - that there was a suspicious cloud that hung over The Soloist pre-opening advertising.
Rarely has so long a wait been so richly rewarded.
The pairing of Foxx, whose portrayal of the mentally challenged musician should draw the attention of many major awards committees, and Robert Downey, who appears to have effectively channeled his real-life demons into the acting excellence that everyone knew he was capable of, has indeed bore great cinematic fruits in The Soloist. In the role of Steve Lopez, the real-life reporter who discovered and befriended Ayers, Downey is indeed in a comfort portrayal of sorts - a guy with relationship and character issues.
After he happens upon Ayers through the beautiful strain of his solitary performance, Lopez makes him a mainstay journalism subject of his L.A. Times column. Lopez also makes Ayers a personal project, but his attempts to help the homeless musician come with mixed results - revealing as much about his own character and misperception as about the troubling and problematic nature of the violinist/cellist's mental illness.
The result is a strong acting chemistry that is given raw strength by the mutual good wisdom of director Joe Wright and screenwriter Susannah Grant's not to pollute the story with unnatural sentimentalism. In fact, anyone who has not experienced Los Angeles' skid row section might question the film's off-the-hook authenticity of it. However, it should be noted that Wright reportedly enlisted about 450 homeless people to perform as extras - providing realism to the numerous scenes at the homeless outreach center called the Lamp Community and the streets that serves as the home for about 90,000 of those disenfranchised.
For Wright, this film was also an opportunity to show off the masterful director's hand that he displayed in Atonement in his use of music to advance the plot. When Ayer's receives a cello as a gift and he christens it by playing a Beethoven composition, Wright eventually wraps the orchestral score warmly around his solitary cello playing, giving his rich composition context.
This cinematic dance of the characters that engages Foxx and Downey, and enhanced by Catherine Keener (who plays Lopez' ex-wife) and Nelsan Ellis (a homeless outreach center director), makes for a compelling story and film that one really doesn't have to be a classical music lover to enjoy. It may even cause the highbrow genre to gain some appreciation from some new quarters.
The 109-minute film is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.