Based on the book by LA Times reporter Steve Lopez about a true story, The Soloist features Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic musical savant who is now homeless and living in Los Angeles. Robert Downey Jr. plays Lopez, and the role affords him almost as much range and diversity as his charading in Tropic Thunder. The comic relief is well-timed and serves to bring us back to the genuineness of Downey's character, rather than distracting from the dramatic tones.
The film follows Lopez as its protagonist than Ayers, and the audience will identify with Lopez as the everyman as he encounters Ayers. Lopez is a popular columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and as he is coming up a deadline for a new story, he finds Ayers playing a violin under a statue of Beethoven. He tries to approach Ayers, and this is when we see that besides being homeless, there is something that seems to be wrong with Ayers. His speech is rambling, repetitive, and often nonsensical, but with moments of clarity that reveal his talent and intellect. Lopez later finds Ayers playing in a tunnel and speaks with him again. We find out that Ayers had attended Juliard, but dropped out, and flashbacks are presented throughout the film as they are triggered by voices Ayers hears, which tell us more about his past. They develop a friendship, and public interest rises as Lopez writes more columns about Ayers.
Foxx is in peak form to nail the idiosyncrasies of Ayers' condition, which had to have been a difficult role to play consistently and seriously. However, it is Downey's portrayal of the fascination and frustration of their relationship that carries the film. I was expecting a character piece on schizophrenia, but Foxx portrays Ayers in such a way that he is treated almost as a non-character, with Lopez's character arc being central.
There isn't much in the way of plot, which may bore some viewers. As a true story, they had to stick to some degree to the true story. Given this, there isn't much that actually happens. There's basically one note to the story - Ayers is a musical savant, went to Juliard, was overwhelmed by his untreated schizophrenia, and is now homeless. That's it. That's the story. So the only thing that makes this story continue to be compelling for two hours is the relationship with Lopez. However, since Ayers is largely a non-character human plot point, the real story is about Lopez's frustration, his relationship with his ex-wife/editor, and his desire to redeem his failed responsibilities with his family by taking responsibility for Ayers. This journey also introduces Lopez to the greater homeless population of Los Angeles, which is where the larger part of his character arc presents itself. The few scenes where these elements are highlighted are basically what makes this movie worth watching.
The second major element of this film is its presentation of the homeless, and I couldn't help but draw some comparisons with Pursuit of Happyness. Both are based on true stories about homeless men. There are a number of montages in an around the homeless shelters that introduce us to some homeless people in both movies, and each one presents a completely different message.
Pursuit of Happyness gives us Will Smith as an ordinary man who falls on homelessness due to unfortunate circumstances piling up on him, and he is unable to pay his rent. He picks himself up by his own intellectual abilities and perseverance and becomes a successful stock broker. The message here is a classic American dream story line.
The Soloist, on the other hand, shows us homeless people as a category of society, rather than just as people who don't have homes. They are portrayed, as Lopez says in the movie, as "broken, helpless souls." The majority are mentally ill, helplessly addicted to drugs, or otherwise unable, categorically, to function in society. The film tries to show us diamonds in the rough, with Ayers' talents, and a few other bright characters and relationships in the shelter. However, the movie ends by telling us that Ayers' mental state is as precarious now as it was when Lopez met him, though he does now have an apartment to live in.
These are both true stories, about real people, so it is impossible to say which portrayal is more accurate, but I think Pursuit of Happyness will remain the more popular with a wider audience in the long run because of its consistency with our hopefulness and values as a culture.
This film tries to do a lot of things, without a lot of plot or substance to do it around. For each of the things this movie does well, there's another movie that does it better.
If you want Jamie Foxx playing in a dramatic biopic about a talented musician: Watch Ray.
If you want fantastical escapism through a fairy tale about the magic of music: Watch August Rush.
If you want an uplifting based-on-a-true-story about homeless people: Pursuit of Happyness.
And if you want Robert Downey Jr., actually this is probably his best role.
I recommend to check it out, but you don't need to watch it twice.