“The Soloist”
At Quality 16 and Showcase

Courtesy of Dreamworks

2.5 out of 5 stars

The streets of big cities are paved with homeless people who just need a little love and support from the community for their talent to blossom. Or maybe the majority of them are psychologically damaged beyond repair and have little hope of functioning in normal society. Or maybe they’re simply quirky, balletic creatures of beauty, wrapping themselves in tinfoil and traffic vests, engaging to observe as they dance carefree into the night and perform concertos with two-stringed violins underneath a highway overpass.

“The Soloist” wants to believe some of these things, and possibly all of them. The film follows the travails of real-life Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (the always engaging Robert Downey, Jr., “Iron Man”) as he discovers one such homeless street musician named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx, “Ray”). Ayers is a gifted, Beethoven-obsessed string bass player, but he dropped out of Juilliard and took to the streets after developing severe schizophrenic tendencies. In short, the man’s a crazy genius. Lopez first finds him playing his malnourished violin underneath a bust of Beethoven, but it isn’t long before Ayers is muttering long-winded nonsense to himself and running headfirst into L.A. traffic to remove a cigarette butt from the street.

Lopez continues to follow and hound Ayers out of what he probably believes is a foolhardy attempt to get his life back on track. Yet at the same time, Ayers is providing great fodder for Lopez’s columns, as well as renewed interest in the L.A. Times. A conundrum is opened up here that the film never really takes the time to think through: Is the relationship between the two men built on genuine compassion, a mutual desire to succeed or a subconscious level of exploitation? It’s clear that the last possibility isn’t being given enough thought, as it’s only floated once in “The Soloist,” by Lopez’s drunken, spurned ex-wife (Catherine Keener, “Capote”).

Then again, maybe the filmmakers are just troubled by what this movie would become if they insinuated the real-life relationship between Lopez and Ayers was less than honest. Suddenly “The Soloist” isn’t a poetic tale of the meeting of two lost souls at all, but a celebration of the same kind of microcosmic, “human interest” sob stories that newspapers sometimes use on to maintain their ever-dwindling supply of readers (another point touched upon only briefly during a newsroom scene).

But even here there’s a grey area, as much good has undoubtedly come out of Lopez’s commitment to telling Ayers’s story. In the film, the mayor of Los Angeles pledges increased funding for the city’s homeless shelters after reading Lopez’s columns, and Ayers gets a rare second chance to showcase his incredible musical talents to the world. His illness causes him to squander this chance, but surely someone (Lopez, perhaps?) must have expected that to happen.

“The Soloist” is tough to criticize in this way, though, because on the surface it’s such a beautifully made film. Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) has a great eye for scene construction, and his shots masterfully showcase the underbelly of L.A.’s mazelike highways. The performances are stellar, especially Foxx, who makes his unstable mind incredibly transparent and heartbreaking without any hint of a Hollywoodized misunderstood eccentric.

This is also the rare film that’s capable of living and breathing the music it celebrates. Extended sequences are devoted to simply listening to Ayers’s playing and Beethoven’s symphonies, which are at one point represented on screen as a flurry of lights and colors. Beethoven, of course, was also believed to have suffered from mental illness.

Indeed, “The Soloist” was lucky to be anchored by the filmmaking talent that it was. In the wrong hands this almost certainly would have turned into an oversimplified redemption story. Ayers’s saga is told without sugarcoating or false uplift. If it does feel like an exploitative tribute to homeless people at all, that comes from the particulars of the true story itself, not the way in which it’s presented. And yet when the film’s over, there’s still the sense that some part of the performance of “The Soloist” was out of tune the entire time.

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