He's just another homeless man — layers of mismatched clothing, a shopping cart loaded with all his worldly possessions, a voice that never stops chattering and eyes that never make contact.
"I apologize for my appearance," he says. "I've had a few setbacks."
But as he plays a battered violin, Beethoven pours out. And when he drops the phrase "my classmates at Juilliard," Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez smells a story — "Violinist has the world on two strings."
It will be a compelling human drama of music and a promising life derailed by ... what? The Soloist is about Lopez's search for answers to that question and his efforts to make a difference in one man's life. That true story makes for an emotional, transportive movie, a film about two "soloists," loners, and how their connection changes both their lives.
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Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx, pitch perfect) so tunes out the world that he goes into highway tunnels to play — not for tips, but for solitude. Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is so wrapped up in his writing that he has lost a marriage (Catherine Keener plays his ex-wife, an editor) and is losing touch with his college-student son.
When the reporter and the homeless man talk, it's often both at once — duologues — neither quite hearing the other. When Lopez tries to help — a reader offers Nathaniel a cello and Lopez tries to find him an apartment, to get Ayers in to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic — the efforts are often rebuffed. It's a difficult relationship. For a feel-good movie, The Soloist does little to sugarcoat mental illness.
Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) uses the soundtrack to depict a city that is a Babel of chatter, one that Ayers has a gift for tuning out. He gives us a mind that sees music as colors. And Wright lightens the story with bits about Lopez's inept home life and finds fun (but never mocking fun) in Ayers' eccentricities.
There's also a timely subtext for this tale of a columnist trying to make a difference. It's about America's newspapers, the world Lopez still works in. Wright's film captures the columnist's creative process and the effect a story from this struggling mass medium can have on public policy. But in between shots of presses rolling are scenes of co-workers packing boxes or listening to buyout lectures as they face round after round of layoffs.
It's marvelous work all around, especially by Foxx and Downey. Foxx makes Ayers mannered, nervous and sympathetic, yet a plainly ill man with the potential for violence. And Downey turns Lopez into a sympathetic ear who journeys from using Ayers to make a mark with his column to someone who realizes he needs to help this man to help himself. Their duet makes The Soloist sing.