But ‘The Soloist’ isn’t like that. What Joe Wright, the British director of ‘Atonement’, has done with Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez’s memoir of meeting and getting to know disturbed homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers is more interesting and less predictable: he’s made a film as loopy and willful as its protagonists and isn’t afraid to leave behind its story to indulge more difficult themes and movements in inventive and challenging ways. One long scene is just an abstract dance of vivid colours – synaesthesia made visual – as Lopez takes Ayers to watch an orchestra at the Disney Concert Hall and Ayers is transported, mentally, to a place to which he hasn’t been for years.
It’s not just Ayers (Foxx), with his matted hair and life’s possessions in a trolley, who’s unhinged. Take a closer look at Lopez (Downey Junior). What’s more crazy: standing on the street shouting at traffic, as Ayers does, or cycling in motor-city LA and trying to keep sane as a print journalist, not least when your editor (Catherine Keener) is also your ex-wife? Wright’s portrait of the city is alive to these ideas – that it’s not just illnesses (schizophrenia, in Ayers’s case) that send people crazy. Life can too.
The film has a twitchy, distracted perspective, taking its eye off the story to allow the camera to shoot up into the sky and inside the cabin of a plane; to visit New Orleans during Katrina; to fly above LA with the birds, looking down on the city’s hypnotic grid. The soundtrack picks up chatter, phone conversations, radio broadcasts: a storm of noise that suggests a world spinning too fast for all of us – maybe any of us – to hang on.
It’s not all like this. A straighter narrative unfolds, as Lopez takes Ayers along to join the Lamp community on Skid Row for the homeless and mentally ill and tries to persuade him to move into sheltered accomodation while organising his first concert in years. Flashbacks fill in gaps: we learn how Ayers came to drop out of Juilliard as his mental state deteriorated. Also, Wright’s much-publicised decision to cast from the real Skid Row pays dividends: there’s a credible cast of extras who surely must have influenced Foxx’s unshowy performance. Downey Junior is on sensitive, appealing form too.
Of course, this is still Hollywood. There are journeys, there are crises and there are solutions. But when easy resolution lurks, it soon skulks off. It’s a deliriously imperfect film – and all the better for it.