It’s hard to pin down The Soloist, since it’s trying to be so many things at once: a panegyric on friendship, a based-on-real-life portrait of urban poverty and mental illness, a glossy prestige pic with a scrappy indie feel, and a swooning ode to music. Yet it feels like a puzzle with some significant pieces missing. It’s as though director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, In Her Shoes) were aware that audiences might find Jamie Foxx’s twitchy performance as a Rain Man-esque babbling savant laughable, so they tried to cushion it as much as possible, with overlapping layers of weepy emotion and stern realism. But the result feels cluttered, overcooked, and underfelt.
The biggest problem is Robert Downey Jr.’s character, Steve Lopez, the real-life L.A. Times columnist and author who brought his city’s attention to Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic musical prodigy who disintegrated at Juilliard and wound up living on the streets. Downey’s performance isn’t at fault; his usual hard-driving mixture of prickly empathy and slick contempt is easy enough to watch. But Grant’s script leaves him hollow. When he first meets Ayers (played with queasy, Oscar-baiting commitment by Foxx), he fixates on him to a never-explained degree, and starts hunting him around the city, wanting to write about him. A sort of addled friendship emerges, with Ayers literally proclaiming that Lopez is his god, and a frustrated Lopez trying to force Ayers into normality by sheer force of blinkered will. Problem is, Lopez’s motivations, even his personal identity, are never clear. The script offers no clues, and Downey never lets the audience past his stern newspaperman’s façade. As the film takes Ayers apart, it empathizes with his pain, then pushes it away to focus on the far-less-interesting Lopez.
Wright directs with the same sense of beauty he brought to his previous films, but here it seems forced and overdetermined, as in the scene where Ayers closes his eyes at a concert, and Wright spends several minutes showing us blackness and flashing colored lights to illustrate the music. At least he successfully gets behind Ayers’ eyes, but as with the strangely polished horrors of homelessness in L.A., he pushes too hard to force audiences into specific reactions. The Soloist goes out of its way to serve every emotion up on a plate, but its force-fed meal comes out curiously bland.