Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language, 109 minutes
Flawed but affecting, well-acted "Soloist" has some good moments
"The Soloist" is a flawed but superbly acted, well-directed real-life portrayal of the ways in which mental illness can affect those around us, regardless of how gifted they are. There are some affecting moments in the drama, which changes some key facts of the key story but keeps most of the major themes in acts. It's very leisurely paced (i.e. slow) in some sections, but stick with it until the emotionally satisfying ending.
"The Soloist" is based on the real-life events that inspired Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) to write some articles for his paper that were later turned into a book. Lopez befriended a homeless man in downtown L.A. named Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), who was in fact a Julliard trained musician who was a musical prodigy and who can play a multitude of instruments, specializing in the violin and cello. Ayers had a nervous breakdown in his second year of Julliard and was taken care of by his mother until her death and has been diagnosed as schizophrenic. He then came to L.A. in search of more family and ended up homeless barely getting by playing a two-stringed violin.
When Lopez learns of his plight, he begins writing articles for the paper, all the while becoming emotionally attached to Ayers, who is a member of an L.A. homeless shelter and organization called LAMP. Lopez encourages him to get help with the aid of doctors and medication, hoping to get him off the streets and fully utilizing his talents. But his relationship with Ayers becomes volatile and uncertain when Ayers himself refuses the help and Lopez realizes the most important thing to Ayers may be the friendship he has with him.
"The Soloist" is a poignant, often sad picture of mental illness and how it affects even the gifted. What could've been the next TV movie of the week is lifted by the superb performances of leads Downey and Foxx, whose chemistry provides the more touching moments of the story. Foxx does an excellent job of capturing the physical, outward extremities of mental illness (not to mention he actually learned how to play the violin and cello), but the trickier role is Downey's, whose requires more registering internal emotions than external ones. Downey is moderately successful, though he plays the role too distant to stake a huge emotional bond with the audience (sarcasm can only get you so far and his voice-over narration is unnecessary).
"Soloist" is leisurely but well-directed by Joe Wright, the Brit who sublimely directed "Atonement" and "Pride and Prejudice," and does an auspicious job here in his first big U.S.-filmed movie. The script borders on the maudlin, especially near the climax when it tries too hard to be inspiring, when the story alone is inspiration enough. Also, the script by Susannah Grant ("In Her Shoes") changes too many facts of the real story, which may explain why Catherine Keener's role of the ex-wife/co-worker is so awkwardly handled and underwritten (the real Lopez is, in fact, still happily married), wasting the very gifted actress.
In the end, "The Soloist," in spite of script and pacing flaws, is emotionally satisfying in the end and helps its audience realize the value of friendship in any situation, and that isn't such a bad thing at all.