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The Soloist

“It wasn’t a real high-stakes story,” grumbled one patron on the way out of the screening. I couldn’t disagree more—what higher stakes could there be than homelessness, mental health, self-doubt, ostracization? I supposed he’ll be happier next week, when the unofficial start of the summer movie season brings the comic book movies into every theater.

The Soloist was originally scheduled for release last Christmas, the traditional time for serious fare, and it’s a shame that it is being put into theaters just in time to get shoved out of the way by the special-effects blockbusters. Based on a series of newspaper columns written for the Los Angeles Times by Steve Lopez, The Soloist is the story of his encounters with a homeless man who was once a promising student at Juilliard. Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) is a schizophrenic, but the film doesn’t attempt to lay out his particular diagnosis. Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) knows only that Ayers has lost his way, and at least initially thinks that he can add some meaning to his own life by repairing that of this man who can’t make eye contact and talks in flowing streams of non sequiturs but still cares passionately about music. Director Joe Wright (Atonement) crafts the film with a sense of irony at how so much homelessness can exist in such a wealthy city. His decision to use real homeless people as extras and in bit roles is sometimes discomfiting—is their misery being used for our entertainment? But he uses them with respect, and it’s hard to argue that it would be better to have actors made up to look like they had spent years living in doorways. Wright is an enthusiastic filmmaker, sometimes too much so: He illustrates Ayers’ internal experience of a live performance of Beethoven as a series of flashing lights. And while Foxx’s reticence to engage in anything inappropriate to his character may keep it from being as showy as you might expect, it leaves room for us to appreciate Downey’s surprisingly warm and dignified performance.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for The Soloist

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