Joe Wright, the fastidious stylist behind Atonement, is prone to frustrating tendencies that are ascendant in The Soloist, an emotionally tone deaf and, typical of the director, gimmick-laden and aggressively polished adaptation of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez’s memoir chronicling his friendship with talented but crippled-by-schizophrenia street musician Nathaniel Ayers. Initially a relationship based on business, with Lopez (a typically game and open-faced Robert Downey Jr.) encountering the fragile violinist Ayers (Jamie Foxx) in a dangerous highway underpass where road-ragers practically spell his impending doom, and perking up at Ayers’s column-worthy mention of having been a Julliard student before “a few setbacks,” the jaded journo is soon moved to accept quasi-guardianship of the wilting-rose-in-L.A.‘s-concrete out of sheer empathy for his perceived hopelessness, succinctly conveyed when he asks if Lopez is piloting a jet that passes over both of their heads. The nearly inscrutable Ayers, who thinks he’s in communion with Beethoven’s spirit and hugs a junk-filled cart close to his person at all times like a baby’s blanket, is made less approachable the longer the film goes on by Wright’s choice to present him in a series of increasingly rococo outfits, culminating in a cartoonish Uncle Sam getup, complete with “whiteface”—a decision that so freezes audience-identification in its tracks that, even if true-to-life, is a dramatic mistake.
Equally unengaging is Wright’s presentation of Lopez’s relationship with Mary (Catherine Keener), an invented character who is both his ball-busting Times colleague and his shoulder-to-cry-on ex-wife, alternating between guises on a dime as each scene demands and occasionally referencing an estranged, off-screen son whose absence fuels Lopez’s quixotic determination to change Ayers’s circumstance, first by baiting him toward the safety of a shelter with the gift of a cello and then pairing him up with blow-dried music coach Graham Claydon (Tom Hollander) to test the validity of the film’s Lifetime movie-appropriate conceit that the healing-power combo of love and music can cure a severe mental impairment. Lopez’s futile attempts to restore a semblance of recognizable humanity to the alternatively lost-in-space and tantrum-throwing Ayers, who at one point refuses a gift of an apartment out of an aversion to walls, are never punctuated by emotional wallops either in the form of unexpected reversals in Ayers’s condition or in a flickering of brotherhood between the two, instead droning on as an endlessly business-casual, clinical slog toward the goal of improving one man’s mental health.
What should be the film’s most dramatically cutting passage, a lengthy flashback to the onset and relentless tightening of Ayers’s dementia, which coincides with his unlikely acceptance at Julliard, lands with a double-thud of screenwriting 101 conventions and generous helpings of Wright’s surface-level mechanics, his swooping and gliding cameras randomly tracking city streets and snaking through homes at will, his attention clearly more focused on approximating the look and sweep of a polished, Oscar-caliber drama than devoting the time and energy to digging toward any truths relatable to his characters’ conditions. The parade of artifice ultimately hits its crescendo with a typically Wrightist, look-at-me diversion, a several-minutes-long sojourn directly into the musical mind’s-eye of Ayers that recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s spacewarp sequence, though here the multihued shards of light twanging their way toward us are less evocative of aural transcendence than they are reminiscent of an old-fashioned computer screensaver. Signifying nothing, the device simply eats up a few minutes and makes for just another of the film’s uninvolving, time-marking episodes.