The Soloist (Dreamworks/Universal), directed by Joe Wright, never finds its voice. Like Wright’s last film, Atonement, it’s a handsomely mounted spectacle with moments of bravura acting that nonetheless feels labored and dull. The film is based on a series of newspaper articles that were later turned into a book by Steve Lopez (here played by Robert Downey Jr.), a reporter who befriended a homeless musical prodigy on the streets of Los Angeles. Steve first spots Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx) dressed in a sequined superhero cape, coaxing marvelous sounds from a two-stringed violin under a highway overpass. After a disjointed conversation, Steve begins to piece together this man’s story: Once a promising cello student at Juilliard, he dropped out when he began to hear voices in his head and is now a full-blown schizophrenic living on the streets.
At first, the cynical Lopez regards Ayers as mere journalistic fodder, but after he publishes his first story on the homeless man to wild success, the two begin to form a bond. A reader, touched by the article, sends a cello to Steve’s office, and he tracks down Nathaniel to deliver the instrument. Gradually, half out of guilt and half from genuine friendship, Steve becomes Nathaniel’s patron, his protector, and (in the eyes of this disturbed man) his god. Ayers becomes a cause célèbre among the city’s elite; he’s offered lessons from the L.A. Symphony’s first cellist and a chance to play for an audience at Disney Hall (which, if you’re a fan of Frank Gehry’s folded-metal architecture, gets lots of time on-screen). But friendship with an unstable and occasionally violent crazy person who thinks you’re god is a rocky road to travel. As Nathaniel’s worship for Steve (whom he calls “Mr. Lopez”) turns into resentment, questions about racial and class guilt are raised, then left unexplored. Gradually, Steve learns the limits of what he can do for Nathaniel, as the inspiration he draws from his friend’s passion for music brings him closer to his estranged wife, Mary (Catherine Keener, with her natural tartness soured into acrimony).
I don’t mean to sound flip when summarizing The Soloist’s story. The movie’s heart is in the right place, and the result, if tepid, is nowhere near as sappy as it could have been. Downey, as ever, is a funny, sad, laconic wonder. The role of a burned-out journalist who rediscovers his own idealism is perfectly suited to Downey’s mix of snark and sweetness—Steve Lopez is Iron Man’s Tony Stark without the red flying suit. But Wright’s directorial choices can be painfully overwrought. As Steve and Nathaniel listen to Beethoven’s music at a symphony rehearsal, Nathaniel is transported by a vision that the viewer is forced to share at excruciating length. We all love spacing out to iTunes Visualizer, but a solid minute of swirling colors plonked in the middle of a narrative film hasn’t been forgivable since 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It seems awful to say this when Jamie Foxx worked so hard for this role—he even had his piano-key teeth chiseled to change their shape—but his generally fine performance as Ayers betrays moments of flashy Oscar-baiting, the kind of calculated uplift Ben Stiller satirized (with Robert Downey Jr.’s help) in Tropic Thunder. Playing our heartstrings like a busted violin, Foxx veers dangerously close to violating the acting law that Downey’s character laid down in that movie: “Never go full retard.”