You'd think Hollywood would be satisfied with a true story where two guys beat odds of 90,000 to 1. That's how many homeless people Los Angeles contains, and until Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez came across one of them playing a violin on the street, nobody knew that Nathaniel Ayers had a fascinating story to tell.
But Hollywood wasn't satisfied, so events in Lopez's book were embellished to make them more "dramatic." Luckily, the spine of the story -- the friendship between a wordsmith who'd started to burn out and a prodigy who'd flamed out long ago in college -- has been entrusted to Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, who make all their moments in "The Soloist" count.
Director Joe Wright, whose previous movies were the period pieces "Atonement" and "Pride and Prejudice," throws himself into LA's Skid Row with abandon. Nightscapes teem with lost, grimy people staggering through the haze from crack pipes. Actors he recruited for supporting parts (and they are actors, mostly from tiny roles on TV) seem frighteningly and sadly real.
Through this world passes Ayers (Foxx), pushing a shopping cart full of possessions and pausing at a statue of Beethoven to play a two-stringed violin. Lopez (Downey) passes by, hears fragments of Ayers' story blurted in "Rain Man"-style, checks it out and writes a column about the homeless guy who once played cello at Juilliard Music School. Then he gets a cello from a reader who can no longer play because of arthritis.
Lopez uses the cello as a chance to lure Ayers off the streets and into a community house, where he can receive counseling and the medication he obviously needs. But Ayers fights him all the way, insisting he needs the freedom to live unsupervised and play outside, where music can soar into the air. At the same time, Ayers begins to cling more and more to Lopez and finally declares the columnist to be his own personal god.
This is hooey, unless Lopez was too embarrassed to put it in his book. Susannah Grant (who took similar liberties in "Erin Brockovich" and "Charlotte's Web"), insists on making the characters conform more to movie stereotypes.
Ayers' violent side emerges only once, and he repents almost immediately. He hears voices telling him he'll never amount to anything and no one loves him (possibly true, though not in the original story), and his sister (Lisa Gay Hamilton) comes west with the idea of taking legal control of his life, not just helping him handle the share of the money he'll get from Lopez's book.
Lopez is more changed. The real guy (assuming he was honest about himself) began to neglect his wife and kids as he was drawn into a relationship with the endlessly needy, almost helpless Ayers.
In the film, he's not just a tired man in a threatened profession but a loser: His wife (Catherine Keener) has left him, though she stays friendly, and his estranged son is in college. He lacerates his face in a made-up bicycle accident, is oblivious to the sight of fired co-workers leaving the building -- trust me, that's not possible -- and spills urine on himself. (Twice!)
Yet "The Soloist" does have the courage to be true to the real Ayers' fate at last, after the exaggerations end. And the smart, hard-working Foxx and Downey ensure that their scenes all stay grittily honest.
The film makes the same point as the book: Not everyone on the street is a Nathaniel Ayers, but any individual could be. If we treat them as an undifferentiated mass,they and we become a little less human.