A drama about social problems disguised as a triumph-of-the-human-spirit story, The Soloist is also, perhaps unintentionally, a neat summation of how liberal thinking boils down to one symbol: a soiled, tattered American flag — emblem of our supposed shame — and one phrase: “Force him.”
Robert Downey Jr., who, as always, is excellent, plays real-life Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who is reduced to writing about his own inability to ride a bike without smashing up his face. He happens across a homeless guy (Jamie Foxx ) who talks incessant nonsense but beautifully plays a violin that has only two strings. Somewhere in the river of babble, Lopez hears a word that piques his interest: Julliard. It turns out that the hobo, Nathaniel Ayers, was once a student there, and that he plays the cello too, or would, if he had one.
Set in 2005, the first hour of the movie passes pleasantly enough, with a grounded sense of Los Angeles and a now-nostalgic love for the rumble and whirr of the newspaper business, which just four years later has become as quiet and solemn as a church service. If Lopez can’t track down Ayers again, he may have to write a column on the virtues of reconstituted coyote urine, which in L.A. is apparently valued for its varmint-chasing uses when sprinkled on your lawn. Although, given the city we are talking about, it may be only a matter of time before the same liquid comes into vogue as a spa treatment or breakfast drink.
Halfway through the film though, Brit director Joe Wright (Atonement) becomes uncomfortable with the idea that it’s only about two guys and the city around them. No, it has to be about America. Deep, dark, flawed America. The Soloist has more American flags than Rocky IV, and each is there to tell us that we, as a country, have failed our least fortunate citizens. Ayers sleeps on a filthy, ragged American-flag pillow. He wears an American-flag top hat. In several nightmare sequences set in a community center on Skid Row, American flags pop up everywhere — nasty, dirty ones. Occasionally we get a glimpse of a TV set showing us an image of President Bush, or hurricane Katrina, or the Iraq War dead. The message couldn’t be more blunderingly obvious: We’re meant to hate Bush and/or America for neglecting the homeless.
Lopez pushes to save the schizophrenic and sometimes violent Ayers from himself. He asks the leader of the community center for Ayers to be diagnosed and treated with the proper drugs. The guy who runs the place informs him that everyone there has been diagnosed and medicated plenty, to no avail. Ayers refuses to live anywhere but the street. Lopez’s chilling solution? “Force him.”