“Based on a True Story.” That phrase strikes fear in the hearts of most critics. For good reason. You might as well add the subhead: “True, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of twisting facts, adding laughs and jerking tears in the name of BIG MOMENTS.” That The Soloist is directed by the young, gifted and British Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) to steer clear of the sentimental traps in the script by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) is reason enough to recommend it. That The Soloist features two of the year’s best performances from Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx raises the bar another notch. Downey plays Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist who in 2005 began writing a series of articles about musician Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx). Once a Julliard cello prodigy, Ayers, suffering from severe schizophrenia, has literally hit the skids when Lopez meets him, playing a battered two-string violin in the slums of Los Angeles, remnants of clothes stuffed like rags in the cart he drags with him. Lopez published his articles in a book called The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. See what I mean about striking fear in the heart?
Well, don’t be afraid, at least not that much. OK, the movie gets sidetracked with social activism as Ayers tries and fails to fit in with L.A.’s Lamp Community for the mentally challenged and Wright seeks cinematic equivalents for the voices in this musician’s head. But as the movie progresses, it’s clear that the miswiring of modern life is Wright’s true subject. Downey nails it in small scene where he sits down on the steps of the shelter and listens to a homeless woman’s random rant with the ears of a kindred spirit. Every time I feared an assault of bromides about the triumph of the human spirit, The Soloist dodged the bullet. Lopez may think at first that his attention will be the cure for Ayers, the inspiration to straighten up and fly right to Oprah. But the movie is having none of that. Foxx, his eyes darting, his head down, his anger on a low simmer, doesn’t cheat in his portrait of Ayers’ illness. Something inside of Ayers will always remain unreachable. Downey’s eyes finally reflect that acceptance, capturing the film’s grieving heart. Rarely have actors achieved such a bond playing characters who can never really connect. In the end, The Soloist isn’t about BIG MOMENTS, it’s about the grace notes, the kind that stay with you.