Prediction: the crowds will be staying away from The Soloist. It is not because the movie is bad; it is both very good and very moving. What The Soloist lacks is marketing appeal. There is no reason for teens to see it. It has no special effects or hot young actors. There is no compelling reason for most middle-aged people to see it either. It is not in the least bit escapist; in fact, it makes us inhabit the gritty and depressing world of the thousands of Los Angeles homeless in and around its Skid Row. Skid Row in Los Angeles feels more like Armageddon is already underway, yet it is very much a part of our American experience. Skid Row is a crowded, crazy and noisy place that resembles anarchy.
What The Soloist does have are two compelling actors at the top of their form. Robert Downey Jr. plays Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez, who happens to stumble on a homeless man playing a violin with only two strings left. The homeless man is Nathaniel Ayers, played with surreal realism by Jamie Foxx. Granted, playing the part of a homeless man is made easier when the set is on the actual Los Angeles Skid Row and you are surrounded by hundreds of homeless people, many of whom were cast as themselves in the movie.
Ayers though would be just another homeless man had he not had a way with a violin and caught Lopez’s attention. Ayers fascinates Lopez because he doesn’t understand how a man can have such talent and have been living on the street for decades. What belongings Ayers possesses he pushes around in a shopping cart. He eventually learns that Ayers, an African American, studied for a while at Juilliard. Unfortunately, his potential, which seemed limitless, was broken when he acquired schizophrenia.
However, classical music still consumes Ayer’s soul. Even as a homeless man, he seems to spend much of his life feeling the strains of Beethoven coursing through his body. Ayers makes for a compelling series of columns by Lopez. A reader provides Lopez with a viola cello, which he gives to Ayers on the condition that he can only play it at LAMP, a nearby refuge for the Los Angeles homeless. LAMP also provides the potential for Ayers to acquire some therapy and perhaps an apartment of his own.
Foxx has the lead role, although Downey gets more screen time. Of the two, Foxx’s acting is the more notable. Not only does Foxx come across convincingly as a homeless person, when he plays an instrument it is like we are inside of Ayer’s mind. That is great acting. Ayers is lost inside his own schizophrenia, but he remains the talented musician he once was. Seeing his talent, Lopez goes out of his way to try to rehabilitate Ayers. I will not spoil any surprises for you but you can be sure it is a rocky journey for both Ayers and Lopez.
What the film does very well is demonstrate the fundamental humanity within all of us. Many of you reading this could be homeless too, had life taken you down some bad alleys as it took Ayers. From the most privileged to the homeless wretches of the world like Ayers, we are not that far apart. The distance between us is of our own creation.
The story of Ayers and Lopez is true and the movie is based closely on a book that Steve Lopez wrote of the experience. Director Joe Wright does an amazing job, not just with getting the chemistry right between Ayers and Lopez, but of making us inhabit, if only for a couple hours, the often terrifying world of life on the street.
A good movie should open our eyes to parts of the world we do not normally see. Your eyes will open watching The Soloist. Your heart should open wider too by the time you leave the theater 109 minutes later.
3.3 on my 4.0 scale.