The Soloist (Joe Wright, 2009) The Los Angeles of Joe Wright's The Soloist is an alien landscape of clover-leaved asphalt, caves of concrete, and dwellings like jail-cells, overlain with a constant muffled roar, punctuated with neon- and police-bar-lit nights through which the homeless meander in surrealist tableaux that would give Federico Fellini pause.
In this environment, while recovering from a nasty bicycle accident Los Angeles Times feature reporter Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is contemplating another failed idea for a column, when he hears, echoing, a high sonority piercing the white noise. It emanates from Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Jamie Foxx)—homeless, schizophrenic, sawing out pure tones from a violin with only two strings, the sounds of the others only imagined in Ayers' head. It's the stuff human interest columns are made of: a Julliard drop-out, cast adrift amidst the flotsam and jetsam on economic beachrocks, whose music cuts through the din. Soon, Lopez's column puts a face on the L.A. homeless community (numbering 90,000) and the public responds, including the donation of a no-longer-used bass-cello, Ayers' original instrument, and Ayers' simple existence gets complicated.
Joe Wright has made two rarefied films set in the English gentry (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement), but this urban tale of harmony amidst grinding chaos, propels his gifts into a new arena. No longer able to settle on the classical symmetry of English estates, this film is jagged, off-kilter, and sonically and visually complex, both in exterior spaces and in the echoing interiors of Ayers' mind. Music soon supplants the chattering roar of the film, softening and simplifying it, finally allowing it to soar, sometimes literally, evoking the peace that soothes Ayers' mind. But those moments are all-too brief, as the two men are both impacted by each other's demons.
That jagged, off-kilter quality is also necessitated by the editing rhythms Wright is forced into by his principal stars, two of the better "riffers" of the current crop of young actors. Downey, Jr. and Foxx intersect each other, the latter, in a constant stream of focused non-sequiturs, while the former interjects whenever he can, like Ayers' music trying to find structure in the jumble of words and thoughts. The editing of their scenes together is tight and, frankly, a little daunting to consider how difficult it must have been. Like the rest of the film, it succeeds if, in not bringing order to chaos, it offers a respite from disorder.