The Soloist -- Film Review

Steve Lopez's columns in the Los Angeles Times about his relationship with Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic homeless man who once studied music at Juillard, eventually turned into a highly praised book and now a movie, "The Soloist." This film version takes a somewhat romanticized view of both journalism and skid row yet is nevertheless a compassionate and compelling look at mental illness. Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx are on fire in the lead roles: They're both charismatic as hell without sacrificing any of the emotional honesty necessary for you to believe that these movie stars are a scruffy reporter and a mentally ill musician.

"The Soloist" should hit the target for older adult audiences, perhaps sharing the demographic that made a boxoffice success of "A Beautiful Mind" -- a similar, but in the end, a much different look at schizophrenia. When the film's release got postponed from late fall 2008 to this year, there was talk about how Downey and Foxx would miss possible Oscar noms by this date change. True, Academy members tend to remember only the last three months of a year when voting, but these performances are extraordinary enough that the memory should not fade by fall.

Making his first film in America, British director Joe Wright ("Atonement") is intrigued by the other side of glamorous L.A., the downtown skid row district where hundreds of homeless people and families must find shelter each night and where Steve Lopez found the story of a lifetime.

As Lopez himself has pointed out in a column, the "Steve Lopez" in this film bears only a faint resemblance to his actual self. He is, in fact, married and not divorced as Susannah Grant's screenplay insists. Apparently being married didn't fit the filmmakers' image of an old-school newspaper columnist -- who must be a rumpled curmudgeon whose personal is life a mess but has time to hit bars to down shots and think mighty thoughts.

Otherwise, the film does accurately follow the trajectory of his relationship with Ayers, starting with their first meeting where, as a professional journalist, he coolly calculates the possibilities of a column about a homeless man who clearly knows how to play a ragged, two-string violin. When Nathaniel's story checks out -- he was a child prodigy in Cleveland and did attend Julliard until mental illness set in -- Steve gets his column.

The huge response that single column by readers all but forces him to participate in Nathaniel's life, first by delivering the musical instruments sent from readers (reduced to a single cello here) and then to secure housing, medical treatment and even lessons from a Philharmonic member. What Steve discovers is that nothing he will do can truly "cure" Nathaniel, but by being a friend, by watching his back, he can do considerable good.

Along the way, Steve himself learns an important lesson in courage and humility. He may even get back together with that ex-wife and fellow journalist (played well by Catherine Keener but it's a pretty thankless role). And his encounters with the extreme living conditions and governmental indifference to homeless conditions in downtown enrage him.

The film plays the skid row scene like something out of 1948's "The Shake Pit" with extras encouraged to act out frightening psychoses and criminality. Whatever the theatricality of this scene, the movie does show -- as indeed was the case -- that because of Lopez's columns, the mayor and other officials did a major re-think about the city's attitude toward the homeless and how they are treated.

While the film never asks to what degree Lopez's relationship with Nathaniel is self-serving if not exploitative, Downey's take on the columnist is not always sympathetic. He plays "Steve Lopez" as sometimes abrupt and testy, even resisting if not resenting how he gets dragged into his subject's life.

Since few viewers know Nathaniel Ayers, it's impossible to debate the accuracy of Foxx's performance, but he certainly gets across the man's intelligence and humanity as he fights his own mind almost on a minute-to-minute basis. Music becomes Nathaniel's only way to shut out the world, to gain a smidgen of privacy on the crowded, noisy streets. In his head, perhaps, he is still practicing for a distant concert date.

The film may be a little too slick and self-conscious for its skid row setting. Wright certainly loves his camera crane shots but they felt more appropriate in "Atonement" then here. And as a journalist, I can only wish that a newsroom were like a locker room with comic banter and live wires in every cubicle.

One thing is for certain: This will probably be the last movie ever to focus on a newspaper columnist. The filmmakers insist that the story takes place in a newsroom where laid-off employees are escorted by guards off the premises and bloggers are replacing guys like Lopez. You do have to wonder, though, if a blog about Ayers would have anywhere near the impact of Lopez's column. Doubt it.

Opens: April 24 (Paramount Pictures)