Like Marley & Me, The Soloist is inspired by a series of newspaper columns (since published as books). Specifically, columns extolling the life lessons offered by someone the writer has come to know — in the first case, a labrador retriever, in the latter, a homeless musician.
It’s true that both films conjure life lessons from their gifted outsiders — Marley the incorrigible couch-chewer, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) the resilient schizophrenic and Juilliard dropout. But really, they’re very different. Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) isn’t about to bring Nathaniel into his home or raise his children alongside him. (He will, however, endeavor to train him, or more accurately, offer him cello lessons with an entirely inappropriate and Christian-inclined teacher, who urges Nathaniel to pray with him.) Neither does The Soloist offer up anyone’s death as an object lesson in loss or the appreciation of difference.
What The Soloist does do, rather disconcertingly, is illustrate its designated other’s internal life. Such imagery sometimes parallels Steve’s efforts to understand Nathaniel’s immersion in music; sometimes, it suggests what it might look and feel like to be insane. Their relationship begins following Steve’s own almost disintegration: a bike accident leaves his face broken (a swollen eye, cuts and bruises) and apparently grants him inexplicable access to alternative modes of being. During their first encounter, Nathaniel delivers a frankly impressive “word salad,” suggesting his passion and compassion (i.e., “You have to treat a violin like a child, you have to protect it”). In need of a column and struck by Nathaniel’s mention of Juilliard, Steve sets to his business. Lo! The guy’s not lying, he’s been to the school and was once considered “gifted.”
So far, so regular. Steve seeks out Nathaniel repeatedly, writes about him (in an annoying script tic, his voiceover introduces each column, “Steve Lopez, ‘Points West'”), and begins to find in him some clue to his own inability to commit. (This point is embodied by his editor and ex, Mary [Catherine Keener, underused as usual], essentially in place to who articulate while drunk just how angry she is at this lout who left her and their son yet continues to work at her paper.) Steve and Nathaniel’s evolving relationship is framed by other variously stranded and/or insane people, most located at Lamp Community, a nonprofit facility for the homeless and mentally ill, where director Joe Wright found “real people” to appear in his film.
This choice affords a look at schizophrenics and crack addicts not typically granted in mainstream films. While Nathaniel’s music soothes these souls (one scene has them quiet at last, listening to his cello-playing, leaning into one another and apparently at peace), at night the camera tends to careen through violence and chaos. This affirms the place is indeed scary (Steve walks from his car with his eyes averted, playing submissive dog as he enters the pack), at once justifying Nathaniel’s reluctance to stay there and recalling Wright’s other showily acrobatic camerawork, conveying wartime in Atonement.
These scenes may be exploitative or sympathetic, depending on whether you assume Steve’s sense of apprehension or his determination to share brief conversations with his new friends. At its best, the film includes helpful, even nuanced lessons on how to think about mentally ill people. One resident explains that she’s not sure she wants to lose her “voices,” because sometimes they “comfort me.” Another woman extols her partnership with another resident: “He’s a bright spot in my life.” And Lamp director David (Nelsan Ellis) helpfully instructs Steve as to who gets to define and control deviant, bad, or ill behavior. As the writer in need of long-term commitment looks surprised, David suggests that such labeling and efforts to medicate can backfire, as they tend to be shortcuts rather than long-term treatments.
Apart from these scenes at Lamp, however, the movie’s representation of Nathaniel’s particular vision is mostly reductive and sensational. His experience of Beethoven is a silly light show, and his madness is portrayed in standard fashion: layers of echoing voices, deep shadows and empty rooms, long zooms in and out on his panicky face. Flashbacks to Nathaniel’s working class childhood (initiated by Steve’s contact with Nathaniel’s sister [Lisa Gay Hamilton]) predictably show him happy with his cello and then speedily “descending” into dark scenes in the basement, as he spends long hours practicing in darkness, his mother Flo (Lorraine Toussaint) insisting on his gift (his chance to “get out”), the walls increasingly close and his face increasingly fearful as his voices are plainly menacing (“Only I can protect you!”).
At Juilliard, one scene suggests a political and cultural dimension to his feeling out of place. As he rushes out of a rehearsal in a panic, he passes into a dressing room full of ballerinas in makeup that looks garish close-up. Pale and red-lipped, their hair pulled tight and their figures skeletal, they are frightening. “Whiteness! Whiteness! Whiteness!” the voices yammer at Nathaniel, who races to escape, panting and, at last, alone.
Steve, to his credit, doesn’t presume to own this saga completely (and Downey is excellent, his performance tactful where it might easily have been gaudy). “I knew only part of his story,” he narrates, “suspended between boy genius and lost traveler.” If only the movie was as respectful.