The Soloist: Liberal Sentiment Flapping in the Wind

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."

Ayers is like many homeless people; organizers shoo them into shelters and they disappear. Once upon a time these people would have been institutionalized against their will. Would locking people up for the crime of being out of their minds make us a better country? Liberal do-goodism doesn't work without coercion. Thus that "force him." Force them to take their drugs, force them to live indoors, force them to be better people. It's the liberal project in two words. Two words that prove liberals don't even deserve to be described with a word that means free.

If liberal interventionism doesn't work with Ayers, it won't work at all. In addition to being given intensive life coaching by a committed, smart person instead of a bored social worker, Ayers is given a cello, introduced to a top musician (who is treated as comic relief solely because he believes in God and tries to get Ayers to pray with him), and provided with his own perfectly acceptable apartment. He responds to all this by beating up Lopez and threatening to gut him like a fish. Ind the end, Lopez admits he isn't sure he has helped the guy at all.

One of the moments in the movie that is supposed to cheer us up comes when the mayor of Los Angeles announces $50 million in new financing -- for more of those homeless shelters, or community centers, or some other weapons system for the war against poverty. "Every now and then, in this city of innumerable wrongs," Lopez intones, "the powers that be get things right."

Praising the government for spending money but paying no attention to the results is like praising General Custer for spending lives. It's those cities that essentially suffer from one-party liberal rule and have spent decades writing larger and larger checks to the poverty industry where homelessness and drug addiction pose the most intractable problems. Could it be that some problems simply can't be solved by community organizers, no matter how much of our money they spend?

The Soloist

Directed by Joe Wright

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx

2 stars/4

105 mins/Rated PG-13