"I do words for a living," Robert Downey Jr. explains testily at one point in his new film The Soloist, and though the statement belongs to Downey's character, real-life L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, it might as easily be Downey's own. No other star in film today offers line readings so meticulously crafted and yet so self-conscious. As the syllables tumble out, Downey seems already to be reassessing them: Did he really choose to utter those words? Should he have chosen better ones?
Casting Downey as a journalist--and particularly as a prose stylist, rather than an investigative ace of the kind that typically populate Hollywood newsrooms--is a perfect nod to his unique gifts. Where writers, newspaper and otherwise, typically self-edit on the page, Downey does so aloud: pausing, considering, rephrasing, in constant, fascinated dialogue with himself. Little wonder that many of the best moments in The Soloist consist simply of Downey's Lopez composing his thoughts into a tape recorder.
The trouble begins when Lopez gets out of his own head and into the world director Joe Wright (Atonement) has prepared for him. The Soloist is the true story of Lopez's discovery of, and fitful friendship with, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless, schizophrenic cello player. Lopez first meets Ayers at a low point for both men: the former recovering from a gruesome bicycle accident, the latter playing a two-stringed violin on the streets of Los Angeles. "I've had some setbacks," explains Ayers. "Me too," replies Lopez. After learning that Ayers was a gifted Juilliard dropout, Lopez decides to make him the subject of a column. The column, in turn, leads a retired musician to donate her cello to Ayers. When Lopez delivers the instrument, and hears the magic Ayers can conjure from it, a bond is formed.
I won't describe the plot's subsequent turns in any detail, in part because I don't have to. Though the film's ultimate destination is somewhat in doubt, the stops along the way are exactly as anticipated: signs of improvement in Ayers's condition followed by relapses into delusion and paranoia; Lopez's selfless efforts to help, which curdle into selfishness when rejected. There are momentary triumphs, wrenching setbacks, and missed opportunities. If you have seen any uplifting film about musical redemption, or any uplifting film about disabilities overcome, you have, to a substantial degree, seen The Soloist.
As Ayers, Foxx is a mixed bag. To his credit, he eschews the kind of hammy, I-am-a-diagnosis-in-the-DSM-IV performance into which he might easily have fallen, instead offering a portrait of humble, understated dysfunction. Yet, while it may not be Foxx's fault, his Ayers rings false: a bit too kind, too gentle, too easy. With the exception of a savage scene near the end of the film--one of few that evokes genuine emotion, rather than a kind of bland, Hollywood self-satisfaction--Foxx's performance is one without edges or complications, a portrayal of severe mental illness as a childlike state of genial innocence.