“I do words for a living,” Robert Downey Jr. explains testily at one point in his new film The Soloist, and though the statement belongs to Downey’s character, real-life L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, it might as easily be Downey’s own. No other star in film today offers line readings so meticulously crafted and yet so self-conscious. As the syllables tumble out, Downey seems already to be reassessing them: Did he really choose to utter those words? Should he have chosen better ones?
Casting Downey as a journalist--and particularly as a prose stylist, rather than an investigative ace of the kind that typically populate Hollywood newsrooms--is a perfect nod to his unique gifts. Where writers, newspaper and otherwise, typically self-edit on the page, Downey does so aloud: pausing, considering, rephrasing, in constant, fascinated dialogue with himself. Little wonder that many of the best moments in The Soloist consist simply of Downey’s Lopez composing his thoughts into a tape recorder.
The trouble begins when Lopez gets out of his own head and into the world director Joe Wright (Atonement) has prepared for him. The Soloist is the true story of Lopez’s discovery of, and fitful friendship with, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless, schizophrenic cello player. Lopez first meets Ayers at a low point for both men: the former recovering from a gruesome bicycle accident, the latter playing a two-stringed violin on the streets of Los Angeles. “I’ve had some setbacks,” explains Ayers. “Me too,” replies Lopez. After learning that Ayers was a gifted Juilliard dropout, Lopez decides to make him the subject of a column. The column, in turn, leads a retired musician to donate her cello to Ayers. When Lopez delivers the instrument, and hears the magic Ayers can conjure from it, a bond is formed.
I won’t describe the plot’s subsequent turns in any detail, in part because I don’t have to. Though the film’s ultimate destination is somewhat in doubt, the stops along the way are exactly as anticipated: signs of improvement in Ayers’s condition followed by relapses into delusion and paranoia; Lopez’s selfless efforts to help, which curdle into selfishness when rejected. There are momentary triumphs, wrenching setbacks, and missed opportunities. If you have seen any uplifting film about musical redemption, or any uplifting film about disabilities overcome, you have, to a substantial degree, seen The Soloist.
As Ayers, Foxx is a mixed bag. To his credit, he eschews the kind of hammy, I-am-a-diagnosis-in-the-DSM-IV performance into which he might easily have fallen, instead offering a portrait of humble, understated dysfunction. Yet, while it may not be Foxx’s fault, his Ayers rings false: a bit too kind, too gentle, too easy. With the exception of a savage scene near the end of the film--one of few that evokes genuine emotion, rather than a kind of bland, Hollywood self-satisfaction--Foxx’s performance is one without edges or complications, a portrayal of severe mental illness as a childlike state of genial innocence.
But it’s Wright’s direction that has the most to answer for. His treatment of the material is so literal that at times the film seems like a syllabus for Remedial Cinematic Technique 101. When Ayers hears voices in his head, we hear them, too. (“They can hear your thoughts, Nathaniel. I can hear your thoughts, Nathaniel.”) When Ayers slips into a schizophrenic episode, Wright shifts to saturated color, canted camera angles, and split screens. And when Ayers has a moment of musical “grace,” Wright fills the screen with splashes of vivid, kaleidoscopic color evidently borrowed from the 1960s. Wright’s chosen metaphors, too, are so thuddingly obvious that they might as well be wearing Post-Its: The raccoons that burrow angrily in Lopez’s yard when things go poorly; the doves that flap toward heaven the first time he hears Ayers play. (Note: You’d best lawyer up, Joe, because when John Woo sees those birds he’s gonna be pissed.) Lest anyone accuse Wright of pretension, he punctuates such imagery with not one, but two gags in which Lopez finds himself covered in pee, the second batch of it belonging to a coyote.
Perhaps most frustrating of all is Wright’s treatment of the skid row populations in which Ayers wanders. In documenting their poverty and drug abuse, damaged lives and occasional violent deaths, Wright overshoots mere sympathy and arrives somewhere less appealing. His camera glides over their immaculately staged sufferings with the same eager curiosity it brought to the Dunkirk evacuees and hospitalized soldiers in Atonement. He wallows in their pain, as if the experience will be somehow purifying, but what he accomplishes feels more akin to simple voyeurism.
In the end, what is most interesting about The Soloist--apart from another bravura performance by Downey--is the way, along with the just-released State of Play, it helps crystallize a wistful, transitory moment in journalism. The latter film took a British miniseries that cast a sardonic, frequently scathing eye upon newspapering, and turned it into an encomium for the Great American Investigative Reporter. And while The Soloist lavishes its praise on a different journalistic subspecies--more Royko than Woodward--the tropes are otherwise in near-complete alignment: same unshaven, play-by-his-own-rules reporter, an editor’s dream writer and nightmare employee; same dogged, against-the-odds vindication of the American Dream. (Both characters even drive the same battered Saab!) As papers shutter across the country, The Soloist and State of Play are a taste of pre-nostalgia for the newspaperman, a cinematic type that, like cowboys and gangsters before it, seems to be vanishing, column-inch by column-inch, from the workaday world.Christopher Orr is a senior editor of