The Soloist manages to avoid the dumbing down that often happens when a true story is made into a movie; a few changes add cinematic contours to the storyline, but the ending isn't pat or contrived. It also steers clear of "message movie" heavy handedness (though only just), even though it has plenty to say about mental illness and L.A.'s shocking homeless problem. The movie is a triumph for British director Joe Wright, who, though prone to visual flourishes that border on ostentation, knows when to allow a scene to be quiet and when to let it scream. There's a moment in which Steve crouches, listening to Nathaniel play a proper cello for the first time in years; another filmmaker might have amped up the tension, but Wright goes for mindfulness, allowing the music to speak for itself. In The Soloist, its impact is loud and oh-so-clear.
We've seen Los Angeles glamorous (Laurel Canyon), gang-infested (Boyz in the Hood), and ambitious (The Player). We've seen it dangerous (The Usual Suspects), mournful (City of Angels), romantic (L.A. Story), historic (L.A. Confidential), rich, complicated and gritty (Crash). But until THE SOLOIST, we've never seen it truly soulful. Finally, L.A. breaks free of Hollywood clichés to emerge fully realized, full of life and contradictions. Having top-rate actors helps: Downey Jr. tamps down the brilliant irascibility that so often permeates his performances. Here, he's muted (in a good way),even when he's frustrated, scared, or enraged. And Foxx is mesmerizing; as he did in Ray, he displays both fine musicianship and a light acting touch that makes for a potent combination.