Friendships are messy things. Telling other people how to fix their lives or finding someone else to clean up other people’s problems is tidier. You’re free to walk away with no responsibilities and a triumphant feeling that you know what’s best. But, as “The Soloist” reveals, if you really want to make a difference in someone’s life, be prepared to embrace the mess.
“The Soloist” is inspired by the book by Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His relationships are all superficial. His ex-wife is his boss in the newsroom. His college-age son doesn’t speak to him. His neighbor, who presumably has lived next door for some time, finally introduces himself. He rides his bike by himself, heading in a different direction than everyone else. He’s content to survive on his own. His only passion is uncovering the next intriguing subject to write about.
The day after a bicycle accident, Lopez, played by Robert Downey Jr., encounters Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless man playing beautiful music on a violin with only two strings left. He learns Nathaniel attended Julliard and wonders how a gifted musician, played by Jamie Foxx, could spiral down into homelessness. Lopez knows he may have an interesting story so he starts checking out the facts. When he tracks down Nathaniel’s sister, who wants to know why he’s writing about her brother, he tells her, “Because that’s what I do.”
His first column moves one reader to send her cello to Lopez to give to Nathaniel. In an effort to get Nathaniel off the street, Lopez makes arrangements to store the cello at a nearby community center that reaches out to the homeless and the mentally ill. He waits for Nathaniel to arrive as promised, but he doesn’t show up. Lopez leaves, frustrated because he has no story for the next day.
For Lopez, his relationship with Nathaniel is a one-way street. After all, he’s the one with the knowledge and the ability to help less-fortunate people like Nathaniel. He pushes an overworked social worker at the community center to have Nathaniel diagnosed and put on meds. He searches for an apartment where Nathaniel can sleep in safety. It doesn’t matter to him if this isn’t what Nathaniel wants.
Lopez soon discovers that Nathaniel has something that he’s missing, something that he can’t put his finger on. One night at a bar with other co-workers, he tells his ex-wife that Nathaniel lives at a level higher than he can describe. “I never loved anything the way he loves music,” Lopez laments. The confession still stings his ex-wife, played by Catherine Keener.
Downey and Foxx are both fantastic in their roles. While Foxx has the eccentric role that audiences will remember, Downey’s gradual transformation from a reporter who keeps a safe distance from his subjects to someone who learns to open up to another person is equally memorable. “The Soloist” wrestles with complex issues like homelessness and mental illness and how we as a society respond to those in need, but at its heart it’s a story about friendship. In isolation, we may be able to shield ourselves from pain, but we’ll remain unfulfilled and empty. Through relationships, and the mess that comes with them, that’s where we’ll discover true contentment.
Michael Leathers is copy editor for EthicsDaily.com and founder of RileysDiner.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.
Director: Joe Wright
Writer: Susannah Grant
Cast: Robert Downey Jr.: Steve Lopez; Jamie Foxx: Nathaniel Ayers; Catherine Keener: Mary Weston; Tom Hollander: Graham Clayton; LisaGay Hamilton: Jennifer Ayers-Moore.
The movie’s official web site is here.
Michael Leathers the copy editor for EthicsDaily.com and the former editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.