Film focus
WHAT: “The Soloist”
RATED: PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language
RATING: 3½ out of 4 stars
RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 59 minutes

Movies about the homeless or the mentally ill often slide into suffocating earnestness.
So we may be forgiven for cautiously approaching “The Soloist,” a film about a man who is both homeless and mentally ill.
Not to worry. Under the steady hand of director Joe Wright, with a terrific script by Susannah Grant and great performances from Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx (destined to square off against one another in the next Oscar race), this real-life story quickly establishes itself as one of the year’s best movies.
A case can also be made that “The Soloist” is one of the finest films ever about poverty or about the transcendent power of music.
Downey portrays Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez as a man who loves his job and … and that’s about it. He’s divorced from an editor at the paper (Catherine Keener) and rarely sees his child. He’s constantly on the prowl for topics to write about, and the voraciousness of his front-page showcase means he’s always moving on to another subject, another person, another situation.
Hearing music in a downtown park, Lopez discovers a homeless man (Foxx) sitting beneath a statue of Beethoven and playing a violin with only two strings. He’s clearly mentally ill. His cast-off wardrobe is heavy on sequins, Day-Glo construction vests and an ever-present frayed purple lei, but there’s no arguing with the sounds he coaxes out of his battered instrument.
He says his name is Nathaniel Ayers and claims he once attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Lopez’s journalistic instincts immediately kick in. There’s a column here.
Many columns, actually. The more Lopez learns about Ayers, the more there is to write. There’s Ayers’ childhood — he was a brilliant young musician felled by schizophrenia while at Juilliard. And his yearning to hear an orchestra play in the new Disney Concert Hall (because Ayers’ tics and odd behavior might offend paying concert goers, Lopez arranges for him to sit in on rehearsals). A Times reader, now crippled by arthritis, donates her cello to Ayers.
At “The Soloist’s” core is a story about a man who wants no responsibilities outside work but finds himself befriending and caring for someone whose life is in near-constant crisis. Lopez arranges a safe rehearsal space for Ayers at a homeless shelter. Eventually he nudges his friend off the streets and into low-income housing.
But when Ayers announces “Steve Lopez is my god,” the journalist wigs out. Writers may be egoists, but he didn’t sign on to be anybody’s deity.
In lesser hands “The Soloist” could have been lopsided. Nathaniel Ayers is such a colorful, compelling, confounding personality that he could easily dominate every other element of the production.
Foxx’s performance, based on his long and careful study of the real Nathaniel Ayers, may be all of the above, but it never feels like thespian grandstanding. It seems to bubble up from inside rather than be imposed from the outside.
He has the perfect foil in Downey, whose “sickness” is more conventional but hardly less debilitating. This Steve Lopez connects with his fellow man at only the most superficial level; his friendship with Ayers forces him to depths of concern and commitment with which he is profoundly uncomfortable.
Working with his first contemporary story, British director Wright maintains the eye for detail and atmosphere that made his “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement” so memorable. A passage of Lopez exploring L.A.’s skid row at night is a hellish vision out of Dante, terrifyingly real yet oddly poetic — a description that applies to the entire movie.
And he has given his two lead characters their own palette of tones — Ayers prefers to play his music in a noisy, dark traffic tunnel, while Lopez moves through the sunlight and tall buildings of the prosperous world.
At one point the movie veers into pure abstraction as Ayers, in ecstasy at actually hearing an orchestra perform live, shares with us the magnificent light show playing out in his brain.
“The Soloist” is not only a great movie experience, it’s one of those rare films that might leave you a better person than when you went in.

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