Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.
Parental Notes: This is a thoughtful film, and occasionally disturbing. It’s aimed at mature viewers, so while it doesn’t contain much in the way of disturbing content, youngsters will likely find it boring.
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On its face, “The Soloist” looks like a racially problematic film: homeless, schizophrenic black man is redeemed by professional, well-to-do white man. But under that surface, there is a lot more going on here. No one in this film is perfect, and their flaws run deeper than the shallow, token flaws of so many Hollywood characters, particularly those of the tired “white man saves black man” trope. Indeed, this feels a lot more like an indie film than a Hollywood production in some ways, from its slow, thoughtful pace to its refusal to offer up a pat, simplistic ending.
“The Soloist” is essentially the story of a friendship: LA Times journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) comes across musician Nathaniel Ayers and writes a column about him, which touches both the author and his audience. The more Lopez learns about Ayers, the more he wants to help him, but what do you do for a mentally ill man who doesn’t want help? The script, based on the book by the real-life Lopez, shows us the ups and downs of their friendship and doesn’t pull any punches.
The two performances at the heart of this film, Foxx’s and Downey’s, are top-notch. Foxx is able to show us Ayers’ passionate love of music as well as his mental illness, and he makes the man at once sympathetic and unsettling. We can see why Lopez wants so much to help, because we can’t help wanting Ayers to get well too — but at the same time, Ayers’ unpredictability and paranoia make him somewhat frightening. Downey, for his part, offers us a man who is deeply, deeply flawed but ultimately well-intentioned. Lopez isn’t a saint, but he is doing his best — even if sometimes his best is utterly the wrong thing.
“The Soloist” doesn’t offer easy solutions. There’s a rehab center with a staffer who offers Lopez advice (often ignored) and Ayers a place to sleep inside (ditto), but his suggestions for Lopez are not simple ones. Just be his friend, he says: the last thing Ayers needs is one more person telling him he needs medication. But being the friend of someone who drifts in and out of reality is not an easy thing, and Lopez has had his fill of difficulties. Even so, the connection between the two men is a strong one, and Lopez can’t bring himself to abandon Ayers completely.
There is no pat ending here, and as the credits roll we know that although things seem to be heading in a good direction for Ayers, the nature of his mental illness makes each step toward healing a precarious one. This is not a film for those who want their stories to end simply and with a straightforward happy or tragic finale. This is a story taken from life, and life isn’t always that simple.