The Soloist  is the second film released in two weeks to present daily-newspaper reporters with premature nostalgia, as rumpled, endearing critters on the verge of extinction. Like last week’s State of Play , director Joe Wright’s film has loving montages of papers rolling off the press and tense conversations about layoffs and defecting readers. But it’s a less preachy movie, mainly because the protagonist — Steve Lopez  of the L.A. Times, on whose columns and book the film is based — isn’t trying to expose the truth with a capital T. He just wants a good story.
The story he finds, to be sure, has the potential for some major crowd-pleasing, heart-string playing and Oscar-baiting. After Lopez (Robert Downey Jr. ) takes a bad spill on his bike and writes about it, his editor (Catherine Keener ), who also happens to be his ex-wife, tells him readers “like to see him bleed.” Lopez doesn’t want to end up one of those navel-gazing columnists, though, so he pursues a more exciting subject, a homeless guy he finds sawing on a two-stringed violin in front of a downtown statue of Beethoven. Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx ) dresses like he raided a costume shop and seldom pauses in his toneless, demented monologues about himself and his hero, Ludwig Van. But he shows musical talent, and he claims to have attended Juilliard.
Lopez delves into Ayers’ past, which we see in flashbacks, and discovers that the vagrant actually is a gifted cellist. The movie, like the columns that inspired it, becomes a meditation on how an artist’s dream can be not just deferred, but torn asunder by mental illness and the pressures of urban life.
Some may come to The Soloist expecting a more inspirational story than it delivers, and others will avoid it for the same reason. But, while Foxx’s performance sometimes errs on the cheesy side, his character is no Forrest Gump. His eyes well predictably when he’s taken to the symphony to hear his favorite composer, but most of the time he’s testy and difficult. After the Times columns make him a local celebrity, Ayers calls Lopez his “god.” But he offers this fealty as a sort of challenge, something to live up to — and it unnerves Lopez, who sucks at relationships and worries that he’s exploiting the cellist for his own gain.
Now that Downey has snagged an Oscar nomination for a role where he wore blackface and used the word “retard,” it’s pretty much a given he can turn crap into gold. Where others might have played Lopez as a whiny soul searcher, he makes him an abrasive smartass who’s decent at his core. When Lopez throws aside his middle-class trepidation and follows Ayers into a mini-city of homeless people and drug pushers, he doesn’t look particularly proud of himself; his eyes say, Why did it take me so long?
Director Wright strives to present the homeless as people rather than circus freaks, and he succeeds most of the time. As in last year’s Atonement, he’s infatuated with lyrical effects, such as a long tracking shot through the nocturnal encampment that, naturally, features a tattered American flag. (When Ayers starts literally wrapping himself in the Stars and Stripes, the irony is on overkill.) Other techniques are subtler, such as repeated aerial shots of L.A.’s vast freeway grids set to the cacophonic buzz of a radio scanning AM stations. The overlapping monologues resemble the accusing, fear-mongering voices Ayers hears in his head and can’t shut off, except when he’s self-medicating with music.
As for the question of whether Ayers needs, well, other medication, Susannah Grant’s script leaves it open. Is the reporter saving the musician’s life by giving him a cello and a public profile, or only disrupting it? Should he have done more or less for his subject? No triumphant ending settles the questions, and the film never delivers much of an emotional payoff. But as a study in classic “human-interest” journalism — demonstrating that it’s actually never a solo endeavor but a series of prickly, questionable interactions — The Soloist nails the story.