Downey, Foxx duet memorably in "Soloist"

Mon Apr 20, 2009 11:41pm EDT
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By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Steve Lopez's columns in the Los Angeles Times about his relationship with Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic homeless man who once studied music at Juillard, eventually turned into a highly praised book. The film version of "The Soloist" takes a somewhat romanticized view of both journalism and skid row yet is nevertheless a compassionate and compelling look at mental illness.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx are on fire in the lead roles: They're both charismatic as hell without sacrificing any of the emotional honesty necessary for you to believe that these movie stars are a scruffy reporter and a mentally ill musician.

"The Soloist," which Paramount Pictures releases Friday (April 24), should hit the target for older adult audiences, perhaps sharing the demographic that made a box-office success of "A Beautiful Mind." The two films share a theme, but in the end are much different looks at schizophrenia.

When the release date for "The Soloist" was postponed from late fall 2008 to this year, there was talk about how the date change would cause Downey and Foxx to miss out on possible Oscar nominations. True, Academy members tend to remember only the last three months of a year when voting, but these performances are extraordinary enough that the memory should not fade by fall.

Making his first film in America, British director Joe Wright ("Atonement") is intrigued by the other side of glamorous Los Angeles, the downtown skid row district where hundreds of homeless people and families must find shelter each night and where Steve Lopez found the story of a lifetime.

As Lopez himself has pointed out in a column, the "Steve Lopez" in this film bears only a faint resemblance to his actual self. Despite what Susannah Grant's screenplay insists, he is, in fact, married and not divorced. Apparently being married didn't fit the filmmakers' image of an old-school newspaper columnist -- who must be a rumpled curmudgeon whose personal life is a mess but who has time to hit bars to down shots and think mighty thoughts.

Otherwise, the film does accurately follow the trajectory of his relationship with Ayers, starting with their first meeting, when Lopez coolly calculates the possibilities of a column about a homeless man who clearly knows how to play a ragged, two-string violin. When Nathaniel's story checks out -- he was a child prodigy in Cleveland and did attend Julliard until mental illness set in -- Steve gets his column.

The huge reader response to that single column all but forces Lopez to participate in Nathaniel's life, first by delivering the musical instruments sent from readers (reduced to a single cello here) and then to secure housing, medical treatment and even lessons from a Philharmonic member. What Steve discovers is that nothing he does can truly "cure" Nathaniel, but by being a friend, by watching his back, he can do considerable good.   Continued...