The Soloist might not have been the kind of happy ending film I was expecting, but it is powerful and thought provoking on many levels. Confronting social issues straight on, it examines some of the problems behind homelessness and the community’s ability or inability to deal with it.
Based on a book by a Los Angeles newspaper columnist, this script takes a few liberties with the actual author’s life in order to create the film version of Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr.). From all appearances, things aren’t going well for this divorced journalist who takes a tumble from his bike and ends up in the emergency room with severe facial lacerations. His latest assignment at the paper has him a little peeved too (and bodily fluids become an ongoing problem for this reporter).
Then one day, while struggling to find inspiration for his writing, Steve stumbles upon a homeless man playing a violin in a city park. Even though the musician is down to his last two strings, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jaime Foxx) still manages to coax sweet sounds out of the old instrument. It is soon evident, however, that the eccentrically dressed violinist has more challenges than just a few missing strings. Jabbering rapidly and almost incoherently at times, he talks about his roommates at Juilliard.
Like any journalist worth his salary, Steve follows up on the rambling comment and discovers that Nathaniel was indeed a student at the prestigious music school. Intrigued by the events leading to this man’s current state, Steve begins to delve into the mystery that caused a life to spiral completely out of control. Then he shares what he learns with his faithful readers in his regular column. But as Steve’s honest desire to “help” Nathaniel increases, so does a nagging feeling of exploitation.
Fortunately, in addition to strong performances by Downey and Foxx, this script has some equally impressive secondary characters that give depth to the story. Nelsan Ellis plays a man in charge of an inner city shelter. Despite the depressing circumstances he toils in everyday and the bleak future his clients face, his character remains dedicated to his work and he respectfully reserves judgment. Catherine Keener stars as Steve’s ex-wife who sees this chance encounter with Nathaniel as a way for her former husband to finally face his commitment issues. (Luckily the real Steve Lopez was and is still happily married.)
The fact that every broken soul isn’t mended and every sinner isn’t saved gives this film an unexpected potency. While scenes of street violence, illegal drug use and some profanities make this production unsuitable for younger audiences, the screenplay does give a face to the homeless (many of whom were hired to play themselves in the movie). And though dollars and cents may help alleviate many kinds of suffering and hardship, The Soloist reminds viewers that simple human kindness can be it’s own catalyst for change.