If "The Soloist" had a subtitle, it could well be "My Brother's Keeper." Based on a true story, it's about what happens when Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, writes about Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a schizophrenic homeless man who, he discovers, was once a cello prodigy at Juilliard.
Lopez knows a good story when he sees one, but his involvement with Ayers is fraught with moral and ethical minefields. He tries to get him off the streets; he provides him with a cello to play, a safe place to store it, and a place to practice. He tries, unsuccessfully, and in the face of great resistance, to have Ayers put on psychotropic medications. All the while, Ayers, who favors sequined jackets and plastered-down hairdos, regards Lopez as something of an angel of mercy – his hero. And Lopez knows full well that, in Ayers's fraught mental condition, a hero can easily be downgraded to enemy at the slightest provocation.
In 2000, Lopez worked his columns on Ayers, which had already attracted the attention of Hollywood, into a bestselling book. It contains all the ingredients for an uplifting Oscar-ish anthem, and yet, despite remarkable performances from the two leads, the resulting film fails to rouse. Maybe it's because the director Joe Wright, and his screenwriter Susannah Grant, are trying to do too many different things, most of which are at cross-purposes.
They want to make a human interest story, a newspaper story, a portrait of a city, a socially conscious fanfare for the common – and uncommon – man. Regarding Ayers's schizophrenia, they play that old genius-of-madness shell game of trying to have it both ways; he's delusional and yet his delusions fuse him to a higher level of feeling than the mundane sanity of scribblers like Lopez. In a key scene, Lopez takes Ayers to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a rousing rendition of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (the "Eroica"), and Lopez can only marvel at how deeply Ayers experiences the music.
There's a bit of "Shine," a celebrated movie I did not much care for, in "The Soloist." Both are about prodigies, laid low by mental illness, who achieve an uneasy nirvana through their divine gift. Although no one could accuse Wright of prettifying Ayers's street life or his tenuous hold on reality, there is indeed a glamorization at work here. Ayers is served up to us as a man whose musical passion is inseparable from his schizophrenia. This is why the film is so curiously downbeat about treatments that might have helped Ayers. He may be in pain, the film appears to be saying, but at least he owns his pain.
The film works best when it focuses on the touching, crazymaking relationship between the two men. Downey doesn't sentimentalize Lopez or soft-pedal his qualms or ambitions. It's a good, tense, live-wire performance. Foxx is saddled with a more circumscribed assignment. The motor-mouthed Ayers, with his split-second tantrums and bliss-outs, would be a challenge for any actor, and at times what Foxx does here seems stuntlike. But he comes through when it counts – in those moments when Ayers breaks through his upsets and is entranced by the power of friendship, of Beethoven, of his sheer ability to feel.
"The Soloist" also touches on something that is of particular interest to any caregiver – not to mention journalist. Where do you draw the line? Does reporting about someone in need require you to fill that need? At its most provocative, the movie is saying that, at any time, in any place, we may suddenly find ourselves morally obligated to a total stranger whose life becomes our own. I wish "The Soloist" had done more than pay lip service to this subject, but the traces of what might have been are still resonant. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.)