The title might refer to the musician, a former cello prodigy, now fallen on hard times, a soloist who plays for the pigeons on street corners and under the freeways of Los Angeles. Or it might refer to the newspaper columnist, another soloist, who hasn't fallen on hard times, but who falls, hard, just as The Soloist begins. The latter, Steve Lopez, faceplants off his bicycle. The former, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, lives out of a shopping cart. They meet under a statue of Beethoven, where Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) discovers that the sweet violin music he hears is played on an instrument with only two strings.
Lopez channels his amazement and curiosity into a column, digging into the past of the not-so-random man on the street: Ayers (Jamie Foxx) was once a promising Juilliard student who seems to have been waylaid by mental illness. The story turns into a rescue mission. Lopez tries to get Ayers off the streets, but encounters the hard truth about homelessness and mental illness -- there are no quick fixes or simple solutions. Good intentions are not good enough.
To his credit, Foxx does not give in to the impulse to offer up a showy or sentimental performance. Ayers is a volatile personality -- when he speaks, words flow out of him like a river, drifting and getting stuck in little eddies, swirling around, tumbling through turbulent rapids. It's a stream of raw consciousness, where the molecules of thought are connected only tenuously. He is a difficult man to understand, and someone frustratingly resistant to, and suspicious of Lopez's overtures of friendship and assistance. Yet Ayers is, despite his almost nonstop patter, fairly still, and his ability to immerse himself in music is his saving grace, if anything is. Lopez is a fast talker too, but also a listener, and The Soloist is about his education in the bleak reality of homelessness. Downey just insists on doing everything right as an actor these days, and he brings an acerbic compassion to Lopez's do-gooderism, which is more hardheaded than softhearted. It is a virtue of The Soloist, which is based on a true story (and Lopez's book), that it does not go for easy uplift at the expense of difficult truths.
Director Joe Wright (Atonement) can be a bit obvious and heavy-handed as a director, but he generally does right by The Soloist. There are only a couple of moments that are conspicuous for their unsubtle symbolism, some high-flying folderol that stands out in a film that otherwise keeps its feet on the ground. What the film does well, in its tale of two individuals, is continuously and insistently return to the bleak streets where all those anonymous, largely invisible people live -- and to underscore that they are all unique (and difficult) individuals as well. Wright takes an almost documentary approach at times, immersing the film in the dark, grimy, rat-infested streets. The movie employs as extras some of the homeless clients of LAMP, the L.A. homeless shelter where parts of the story take place. They can be fascinating and fantastically engaging people, and the film accepts them "as-is" without any obvious effort to exploit them or turn their eccentricities into feel-good quirkiness. So while it focuses on Ayers and Lopez, The Soloist succeeds in grinding, just a little, a political ax about the plight of all those who, for their various reasons, live on the streets. At the same time, the movie resists the urge to oversimplify or offer up comforting platitudes and bromides -- it is moving and sincere, and does not completely abandon all hope of a happy ending. But the real strength of The Soloist is not its softheartedness but its hard eye, and the willingness to look and not look away from the unfortunate, however uncomfortable, unpleasant, and uneasy looking might make us feel.