It’s late April but – finally – there’s a movie memorable enough to incite early Oscar buzz, featuring the combination of a story based in truth, actors who truly inhabit their characters and music that touches the heart.
One day while casting about for an intriguing human-interest story, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) spies a homeless man passionately playing a two-stringed violin near Beethoven’s statue in a downtown park near Skid Row. Intrigued, he tries to engage Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) in conversation but learns only that he once went to Julliard but also that he firmly believes that Beethoven is the leader of Los Angeles. Curious but wary, Lopez makes inquiries and discovers Ayers was, indeed, a talented prodigy whose career was sidelined by schizophrenia. A cautious, often volatile yet tenacious friendship develops between the two disparate men as Lopez tries to get Ayers off the street and back into the world of music.
Working from Lopez’s book, screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) crafts dialogue that’s deft, intelligent and laced with a sense of humor that is both defensive and revealing. British director Joe Wright’s (“Atonement”) graceful direction flows naturally and easily, giving it all an understated authenticity. What’s fascinating is how he views L.A. through the lens of a foreigner, capturing evocative views of a city in constant motion.
After learning how to bow and finger from Ben Hong, a cellist with the L.A. Philharmonic, Jamie Foxx attacks his role with breathtaking ferocity, delivering a fearless, scary, exhilarating performance, one of the most vulnerable of his career, while Robert Downey Jr. is superb as a complex, multi-layered reporter, striking not a single false note in a highly combustible mixture of emotions. Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander and Lisa Gay Hamilton give stalwart support.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Soloist” is a touching 10. A film of enormous integrity, it’s exquisitely acted, beautifully written, sensitively filmed and filled with memorable moments.