The Soloist is a compelling film that was probably too far ahead of its time in 2009 to be fully appreciated. The Soloist is a movie cut from the same cloth as acclaimed films like Rain Man (1988), Forrest Gump (1994), and A Beautiful Mind (2001), but deviates by trying to do something that no other Hollywood film has ever really done: explore the way mental health disorders affect African American communities. Millions of Black Americans struggle with mental illness, but can't afford to seek help because of cultural and economic limitations. The Soloist makes a noble effort to put that reality on display.
The film is based on the true story of Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless musician with schizophrenia, and his interesting friendship with Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), a grizzled journalist for the Los Angeles Times. After watching Ayers play a violin (that he must have found in a dumpster), Lopez becomes intrigued by his eccentric aura and begins to feature him in a newspaper column. Their relationship starts out a bit exploitive. (Award-winning inspiration doesn’t grow on trees for writers!) But as Lopez grows to know Ayers a beautiful accord begins to blossom.
A series of frustrating and somewhat comical encounters allow Lopez to develop an intimate understanding of Ayers’ struggles with mental illness and how it ruined his chance to succeed at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. This understanding forces Lopez’s humanity to the surface and compels him to help Ayers get “back on his feet.” [Insert White savior trope here.] Lopez’s benevolence initially feels a bit self-serving and cursory because his constant frustration with Ayers and unrelenting sarcasm towards him suggests a man whose heart is not really in the endeavor. It's all very reminiscent of the dynamic that exists between Raymond and Charlie Babbitt in Rain Man.
And Foxx does a very good job matching the subtle intensity of Dustin Hoffman’s analogous performance. There aren’t any astounding moments of mathematical genius, but throughout The Soloist Foxx projects Ayers as a source of beauty and hope. And that beauty and hope inspires both Lopez and the audience to look beyond the stereotypes and stigma of mental illness and see the humanity and potential for talent in those who suffer from it. Foxx conveys the pain, confusion, and vulnerability of Nathaniel Ayers' situation with an aplomb that he has nailed in other roles like Just Mercy (2019) and Ray (2004). In fact, the chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. is the best part of The Soloist.
The synergy that Downey and Foxx find in The Soloist really saves the movie from being overly formulaic (in my opinion). Full Disclosure: Critics widely considered The Soloist an underwhelming failure at the box office for being...overly formuliac, and I can see why. Its slow pace and meandering plot asks a lot of its viewers in terms of commitment. The subplots that run throughout the film feel wholly unnecessary and actually steal time that could be devoted to flushing out Nathaniel Ayers’ story to give more depth to his character. He kind of exists as an archetype rather than an icon, and that’s a shame considering Foxx’s talents.
However, there are still really good things to take away from The Soloist. Downey Jr. brings his trademark wit and energy to the role of Steve Lopez. (Imagine Tony Stark if he had gone broke and decided to become a social worker.) Foxx's portrayal of Nathaniel is more introspective and subdued, and that creates an entertaining dynamism between the two of them that makes the movie work (in my opinion). Their banter and especially their fighting become the beating heart of the film. You can viscerally feel Lopez’s exasperation with Ayers during his moments of irrational anxiety and Foxx demands your pathos in every schizophrenic episode he ramps into. Downey and Foxx make these circumstances feel real and emotionally powerful.
And while The Soloist is an ostensible odd couple-buddy movie, it is really a movie about catharsis, creativity, and hope. (Who doesn’t need some of that in their life?!) Moreover, it’s a film that shows that mental illness is a manageable affliction for people if friends and family surround the afflicted with love and support. The true story of Nathaniel Ayers and Steve Lopez is a testament to that. Ultimately, The Soloist helps soften the awkwardness of talking about mental health disorders and puts a fresh (black) face on the challenge of dealing with them.
The Soloist is currently streaming on all major platforms.