Bowing to none: The Soloist

This moving story of a mentally ill musician is diminished by maladroit handling.

Jamie Foxx, left, as Nathaniel Ayers and Robert Downey Jr as the journalist Steve Lopez in The Soloist.
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Supporters of Barack Obama's healthcare bill should show The Soloist to their opponents. It is a film about a mentally ill cellist who has slipped through the net of society because no medical help can be given to him. Granted, his plight is not entirely the system's fault: the character won't acknowledge his illness, so medication cannot be forced on him. But the film's depiction of thousands of homeless people living on the streets of Los Angeles, many of them suffering from mental illness and unable to break out of their cycle of poverty without access to care, is powerful.

Adapted from the book by the Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez, which was in turn adapted from a series of columns he wrote in 2005, the film's subject matter is gripping, and vaguely familiar. Lopez (Robert Downey Jr), portrayed as jaded and embittered, encounters a homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), playing Beethoven on his violin's two remaining strings near the newspaper offices. From the stream-of-consciousness gabble, Lopez manages to decipher that Ayers was once a student at the Juilliard music school in New York. A light bulb flashes - could this be a story? he wonders. Indeed it could - just not the story we, with our happy-ending-accustomed brains, might expect.

Ayers is clearly a troubled man, and the more Lopez seeks to help him (by giving him a cello, putting him on stage and providing him with his own front door) the clearer the extent of his illness becomes. Their relationship, in turn, becomes tense. And whereas in Shine, the film about the Australian pianist David Helfgott, who also suffered a monumental breakdown, the musician was nurtured back to some semblance of health, the same cannot be said of Ayers. Lopez does what he can for him, but without the medicine he so desperately needs, his future looks bleak.

Wright's adherence to the truth is commendable, but the plot jars with the style and tone of the film, which is deeply self-aware and sentimental. When Ayers starts to play for Lopez, there is a nauseating shot of birds flying overhead. Yes, the music sets him free; we get it. Then there is Ayers's appearance: obviously fond of a sequin or two, his eclectic wardrobe is consistent with someone who is not in possession of all his mental faculties. But it is all just too quirky, and when he paints his face white like a morose French mime artist, we practically choke, so obviously is the image of a trapped genius being rammed down our throats.

There is no denying that the shots of the LAMP community, where thousands of homeless people live, are affecting, especially when you know that some of the characters were played by real residents. But again, as the camera embarks on another sweeping tracking shot, it feels too stiff and glossy. Downey and Foxx's performances are both good, but Foxx's unpredictability makes it difficult to engage with him as a character. And is Ayers's cello-playing really that good? Apart from a few repeated bars of Beethoven, we never get to see it.

Downey is suitably rough around the edges but he is, at times, remarkably impatient with his mentally ill friend, which results in an unsatisfying rapport. Lopez's actual experience with Ayers must have been incredible. It is a shame, then, that Wright's film makes it feel like nothing but an uphill battle.