There are some topics that are notoriously difficult to portray in movies. Showing writers, painters or musicians at work for example--hard to do. Realistically portraying what it's like to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia is another tough one. The Soloist tries to tackle a couple of these subjects on varied levels but kind of falls flat by attempting to do too much with the story rather than just depend on its strengths.
Robert Downey, Jr. plays Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist who writes about regular people, quirky people, only in L.A. kind of stories. His interest is piqued by Nathanial Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a rambling, not quite coherent street musician/homeless man he accidentally encounters one sunny afternoon. It seems Ayers might have gone to Julliard at one time so Lopez begins to write essays about this musician who went from the privilege auditoriums of Julliard, to playing in tunnels while covered in aluminum foil.
The Soloist is one of these over earnest types of films that pop up from time to time. These films are usually well crafted (Joe Wright directs), sentimental and attempt to impact a message to the audience. The idea is usually applied with the subtlety of a ball peen hammer to the skull--such is the case here. The Soloist has two big issues: mental disease and the homeless and the ways an urban metropolis like L.A. treats both of those things. Films like these, with such blunt, overt lessons running throughout them, drain me more than they move me.
Downey and Foxx are actually pretty good in the lead roles. Can't fault their performances. A major mistake though is the useless, manipulative scenes of Ayers as a youngster, as a promising student at Julliard and when he was losing his grip on reality. Schizoprenia manifests itself in Ayers head as a lot of voices talking to him at once. The more voices, the more powerful the hold of his schizophrenia on his actions. The film should have just stayed with the present story of writer + homeless man and their forming bond and relied on their chemistry and good performances. The flashbacks are distracting at the very least and do a lot of damage to the flow of the film.
While The Soloist attempts to portray tough to film topics such as schizophrenia, writing and being a musician--it dooms itself by being overly complicated, earnest, preachy and sentimental. A little restraint and directness in storytelling would have done wonders for it. Instead, we get the same kinds of overwrought excess that seems to always screw up these kinds of pictures.