Sitting through “The Soloist” is not unlike watching a dieter resisting a bowl of chocolates; this drama, based on a true story as told by a Los Angeles Times columnist, keeps skirting the gassy clichés of the uplifting triumph-of-the-underdog movie before ultimately surrendering to soppy sentimentality.
That columnist, Steve Lopez (played here by Robert Downey, Jr.), shares a certain Last Man Standing quality with Russell Crowe’s character in “State of Play” — both of them are going down with the ship of print media, keeping their desks while all around them co-workers are being let go as a result of corporate downsizing.
On a walk around the Times’ offices in downtown L.A., Lopez encounters Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a mentally disturbed homeless man who keeps up a constant gabble to himself, occasionally interrupted by playing notes on a two-string violin. Ayers mentions that he once attended Julliard, so Lopez starts doing some digging, in the hopes of finding a notable human-interest story for the paper.
After a few false starts, the journalist confirms that Ayers did indeed study at Julliard in the early 1970s; the two men grow closer when one of Lopez’s readers, moved by his columns, sends a cello — the instrument on which Ayers once trained — to the paper. Since Lopez worries that the cello will be stolen from Ayers, the writer insists that the musician play it only at a facility for the homeless where it can be secured.
The deeper that Lopez gets into Ayers’ life and surroundings, the more he wants to pull back and avoid commitment — all of which strikes Lopez’s editor (Catherine Keener) as familiar, since she used to be his wife. Can Lopez become Ayers’ friend and help the man whose story has boosted the column’s visibility, or is the ink-stained wretch merely exploiting this broken man?
You can probably guess, since the film is based on Lopez’s book. I will give “The Soloist” credit where it’s due by pointing out that the movie pulls no punches in its portrayal of homelessness — no major studio film has ever given us such terrifying images of the people and circumstances and degradation that many on the street must endure.
Also, the film deftly avoids the whole upstanding-white-guy-helps-noble-person-of-color routine so often seen in movies like this. (“Cry Freedom,” it ain’t.) Even though his book is the source of the film, Lopez is portrayed as anything but saintly, and even Ayers’ mental illness gets its moments of bleakness and terror — “The Soloist” isn’t afraid to present him, at times, as a danger to himself and others, as the saying goes.
If only the movie could stay true to its naturalistic inclinations and avoid the “Shine”-esque sap that so often rises to the top, abetted by Foxx’s often indulgent and gimmicky performance. Despite being called “The Soloist,” this is the kind of movie where, when Foxx starts playing the cello on his own, an invisible symphony comes in to accompany him to a soaring finish. (And don’t get me started on the multi-colored light show that’s supposed to represent what musician Ayers “sees” when he listens to music.)
The film could also have done without two separate slapstick moments that involve Downey getting soaked in urine (don’t ask), although the actor gives another credible and sensitive performance.
The film’s truer moments, and the smart work by Downey and Keener, can’t keep “The Soloist” from getting pitchy. Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) simply pace back and forth past that candy dish before finally stuffing their faces with bonbons.