By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Mental illness is a difficult subject for movies to explore because it's an internal problem that filmmakers can only depict outwardly. They would need to burrow into our brains, distort our thought processes, and studio lawyers would certainly have a problem with that.
So, we get movies like The Soloist, telling a remarkable true story in occasionally laughable external terms. That isn't exaggeration; several times during a screening of Joe Wright's movie, moments intended to be taken seriously drew laughs from some viewers — the increasingly strange clothing worn or behavior exhibited by schizophrenic Nathaniel Ayers, and glazed looks on the face of the actor playing him, Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx.
Not to belittle Foxx's efforts or Ayers' problem, but those blank expressions, slit eyes and curled lips to convey internal dysfunction resemble his drag character Wanda on In Living Color. Between that distraction and Wright's ham-fisted collage of swirling lights and colors representing Nathaniel's viewpoint — thankfully attempted only once — The Soloist constantly yanks viewers out of its reality and into a shameless pitch for awards consideration.
That's apparently what DreamWorks intended when The Soloist was originally slotted for release last Thanksgiving. Then Foxx's co-star, Robert Downey Jr., coincidentally gutted movies like The Soloist in his Oscar-nominated turn in Tropic Thunder, with a tasteless but true monologue skewering actors going "full retard" to win acclaim.
The Soloist hasn't put enough distance between that role and Downey's appearance here to prevent viewers from connecting the disparaging dots.
Downey plays Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who happens upon Nathaniel playing a two-stringed violin at the base of a statue of Beethoven, whose compositions dominate the movie. During his rapid ramblings, Nathaniel mentions he was schooled at Juilliard. Reporting instinct takes over and Nathaniel's story checks out. Steve begins a series of columns on Nathaniel's plight, striking a chord in readers.
Then nothing much happens. Nathaniel's genius is recognized, but his condition prevents any miraculous recovery. He isn't a grave danger to himself or others, so there's no drama there. Gradually The Soloist becomes less about Nathaniel than Steve, and a reporter becoming the story is a Journalism 101 lesson in what not to do. Especially when Susannah Grant's screenplay doesn't give Steve any interesting baggage to carry.
Wright, who previously inspired catnaps with Atonement, isn't any more exciting to follow here. He's a maker of big moments, like the bravura pan through a war-torn city in Atonement and a boom shot in The Soloist that morphs into computer animation as Steve's "soul" rises from an underpass to the skies when he hears Nathaniel play cello. It's a lovely scene without any others to artistically complement it.
Foxx obviously sees Nathaniel as his ticket to another Oscar, delivering a performance so calculated that we always sense he's trying too hard. Downey is his usual effortless self, although saddled with two gross-out urine jokes for comic relief. The Soloist already has that going, if not in the way anyone intended.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.