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The Soloist

Not Quite a Symphony

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Nothing says “Oscar bait” like a “based on a true story” film centered on the redemptive friendship between a lonely, divorced writer and a mentally ill, homeless musician. Add to that Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winners in front of and behind the cameras and you have a seemingly perfect formula for Oscar success. Unfortunately, Joe Wright’s (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) third film, The Soloist, from a screenplay by Susannah Grant and based on Steve Lopez’s newspaper series and the subsequent non-fiction book, is hitting movie theaters two months after Oscar statues have been handed out. It’s also far too early for next year’s Academy Awards, all of which signals the studio executives’ lack of confidence in the finished film. Sadly, they were right.

As the summer of 2005 winds down, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), a Los Angeles Times writer, finds the subject of his next column when he encounters Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless musician, performing on a shoddy, two-stringed violin in a public park. Ayers rebuffs Lopez’s initial attempts at conversation, but Lopez picks up a salient thread from Ayers’ mumblings: Ayers claims he attended Julliard in the early 1970s.

Research proves Ayers correct -- a one-time child prodigy, he attended but failed to graduate from Julliard due to the onset of schizophrenia, lived for three decades in Cleveland with his family, and after his mother’s passing in 2000, drifted west until he arrived in the City of Angels, eking out subsistence living as a street musician. Lopez sees not just the subject of a single column, but a whole series on Ayers and Ayers as just one of the many mentally ill homeless people who live in Los Angeles.

With the hesitant support of his ex-wife/current boss, Mary Weston (Catherine Keener), Lopez writes a series of columns that strike a cord with his readership and, eventually, the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa (Marcos De Silvas). As Lopez’s professional interest in Ayers veers into the personal, he becomes part of the story he’s reporting on (his objectivity, however, remains unquestioned). After an elderly reader sends her cello to Ayers (care of Lopez), Lopez sets up Ayers with a locker and a performance space at the Lamp Community Center, lessons from a professional cellist, Graham Claydon (Tom Hollander), and reunites Ayers with his estranged sister, Jennifer (Lisa Gay Hamilton). Each ostensible step forward toward social integration, however, places Ayers’ fragile mental state at risk, ultimately raising (unanswered) questions about the limits of helping the mentally ill and the homeless.

The subtitle to Lopez’s book perfectly sums up The Soloist’s central preoccupations and what we, as moviegoers, are expected get out of the film: “A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music.” With Susannah Grant adapting Lopez’s articles and subsequent non-fiction book into a conventional Hollywood film (liberties, as usual, have been taken with facts), Wright has crafted an overly earnest, occasionally manipulative, sometimes sermonizing “social-conscience” film. Both Wright and Grant deserve credit for spotlighting the harsh realities of mental illness and homelessness, but as with any film, good intentions are rarely (if ever) sufficient to excuse away story flaws. The Soloist firmly belongs in this category.

Wright and Grant seem content to lean heavily on Foxx (idiosyncratic) and Downey, Jr.’s (subdued) performances, and the “power of love” redemption story and character arc, one where mental illness and creativity are seemingly bound together by misfortune, fate, and/or genetics, to carry them across the narrative finishing line. Wright also includes a migraine-inducing light show to represent how Ayers experiences music, redundant, momentum-sapping flashbacks, and mis-judged feel-good moments tacked on to the closing scenes. If only Wright and Grant had trusted their audience more and their inclination toward didacticism less, then The Soloist would have met the producers lofty Oscar expectations.