Noteworthy Struggle

In 'The Soloist,' Foxx Gives A Bravura Performance As A Mentally Ill, Homeless Musician *** (3 Stars)

April 24, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

The twin heroes of The Soloist have to stare down almost every evil modern society can throw at them: mental illness, urban decay, hubris, abuse of power, narcissism, even the declining fortunes of America's newspapers. And while they don't exactly emerge triumphant, they win enough battles to give us all hope.

Robert Downey Jr. is Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, and he's desperate for a story. Out trolling one afternoon, he hears violin music coming from the area surrounding a statue of Beethoven. The source is a scraggly, mumbling, disconsolate-looking homeless man (Jamie Foxx) with only two strings left on his violin. His name is Nathaniel Ayers Jr., and he's a mess. He's also a potential story, and a few conversations and phone calls later, Lopez discovers just how good a story: The guy was a teenage cellist, a musical protege enrolled at Juilliard, who couldn't control his inner demons, so he dropped out - way out.

Lopez has his own problems to deal with, including a failed marriage (to his editor, played by Catherine Keener) and encroaching layoffs at the Times. But try as he might, Lopez can't get Ayers out of his head. When a sympathetic reader has her antique cello delivered to Lopez's office, the die is cast. Whether he wants to or not, Lopez is going to be helping his new friend get his life back.

And that's not going to be easy, because to say Ayers has the odds stacked against him would trivialize the point. It's not enough that he's homeless and suffering from a debilitating mental illness. He's living on the gritty streets of L.A., a place that the film's production designer, Sarah Greenwood, makes look like a hell even Dante couldn't have envisioned, a nightmarish world of despair and dissolution. Working their way out of this won't be easy for either Lopez or Ayers.

Downey, his hair cut way short and a few days' stubble always on his chin, never seems quite comfortable as Lopez; for once, his edginess seems forced. Then again, maybe that's the point: maybe Lopez doesn't feel comfortable as Lopez. But Foxx is magnificent, taking a role that could be exorbitantly showy (actors playing the mentally disabled tend to forget the word "restraint") and turning in a performance that's controlled and mesmerizing.

This is not an easy film. Many fans of Foxx and Downey, eager to see their heroes in roles that can easily be embraced, are going to be disappointed. The movie asks a lot of its audience, sometimes maybe too much. To its credit, no one here is easy to root for, but the endless parade of weighty societal issues does become tiring after a while.

As with his last movie, Atonement, director Joe Wright shrinks from not a single challenge. His characters are edgy, flawed and seemingly more prone to mistakes than victories. But they persevere, and in that perseverance rests their - and our - triumph.

The Soloist

(DreamWorks SKG) Starring Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener. Directed by Joe Wright. Rated PG-13 for language and drug use. Time 109 minutes.

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