American audiences are served certain cinematic plots with such regularity and predictability that we know what to expect when we see them coming. There’s the sports film in which the over-the-hill athlete gets one more chance for glory. There’s the underdog team that overcomes obstacles and makes it to the big dance. So, when the main character in the The Soloist meets a homeless man who happens to be to be an extremely talented cellist, the film has all the material it needs to become a cliché. Thankfully, The Soloist avoids many of the easy mistakes that it could have made.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a LA Times columnist who stumbles across a homeless man (Nathaniel Ayers played by Jamie Foxx) playing a violin next to the statue of Beethoven in Pershing Square. Their conversation, which includes the detail that Nathaniel attended Julliard, gives Lopez his column for the week, a human interest story about a talent lost in society’s cracks. Through the film Lopez tries to help Nathaniel, bringing him a cello, finding an instructor, an apartment, all while an unlikely and challenging friendship develops between the two. The friendship is challenged not only by Nathaniel’s schizophrenia, but also by the conditions within which the relationship began. Downey’s character initially is open to doing the small things he can do for Nathaniel because Nathaniel is his story. If one went back to Aristotle’s description of friendship, this would be a friendship of use. Lopez relates to Nathaniel because he gets something else from it, a story rather than simply being involved in Nathaniel’s story. The character of the relationship and the vulnerability Lopez expresses changes over the course of the film. In dealing with Nathaniel’s mental illness, Lopez initially looks for a fix. He wants a diagnosis so that some results, some improvement can be had. He asks at one point in the film, “How do help somebody if you don’t know what they have?” That is the question of the film and answer forces the film to part from our expectations.
The film does not end as a typical uplifting Hollywood drama might and at times it seems unsure of itself. It has both its gritty and maudlin modes. Some will criticize the film on these grounds, as unclear about its intentions, but they might just be the movie’s gift. Sure, a deeper exploration of mental illness can be had, but our expectations are upset by the film just as Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, which recurs in the film, upset expectations in its day. Compare, for example, the light-hearted theme from one of Mozart’s earliest operas, Bastien and Bastienne, with the first subject of Beethoven’s piece and one finds an utterly identical progression except for Beethoven’s ominous deviation from the tonic. The film provides a similar deviation. It asks: Can you be a friend to someone if they are either a means to end, in this case a newspaper column, or a project to be fixed? Can you solve social ills from afar or without personal transformation? Downey’s character must be transformed if a true friendship is to be formed and we see him struggling to be vulnerable to Nathaniel. Again, thankfully, this film doesn’t end with Nathaniel playing at Carnegie Hall; thankfully because friendship, which always learns to flourish by attending to and accepting the special needs and qualities we each possess, is a more salutary end than easily measured results. Director Joe Wright gives us a film anchored by solid performances by both Downey and Foxx that may leave some audiences unsure of its intentions, which although a vice, is perhaps also a virtue of the film. Denying easy notions of success and as a conversation starter about homelessness, mental illness, and friendship, The Soloist succeeds. I'm not sure I'd send you to theaters to see it (and I don't think it is still in theaters), but you could do worse than adding it to your Netflix queue.