Joe Wright, the British director, sent his cameras twirling around ballrooms and hurtling across rural fields in 2005’s Pride & Prejudice. Considering that unusually limber adaptation, plus 2007’s Atonement, he’s done more to flesh out Keira Knightley’s career than a phalanx of nutritionists bearing carbs.
This is all a way of saying that a real filmmaker toils behind the liberal pieties of The Soloist. Two contemporary Angelenos—one homeless, one merely unmoored—form a symbiotic relationship, and Wright is not content to merely play dutiful executor. The director shapes these trajectories into fiery comets. Riding the dying bronco of print journalism, Los Angeles Times reporter Steve (Downey) closes his car door to the squalor of poverty, then can’t stand the silence and must charge out to find his missing column subject. That is Nathaniel (Foxx), once a Juilliard prodigy but hounded by voices until madness claimed him. Wright amps up the dark cellos and whispering taunts, very nearly capturing an iconic moment of tragedy as Nathaniel’s sister pleads with a retreating silhouette: “But where will you sleep?”
The Soloist comes from the complex, real-life relationship of Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers, adapted from Lopez’s account by Erin Brockovich’s Susannah Grant. As pitched on the economic border between the luxe, curvy Walt Disney Concert Hall and L.A.’s depressed needy, it strikes the same humane chords as Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. The tears it elicits are earned. But as with Gilliam’s movie, there’s an element of fantastic fate that’s discordant. Foxx is playing a miracle; Downey, a lapsed believer. Both are capable of more.—Joshua Rothkopf