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MOVIE REVIEW

The Soloist

Playing for keeps: Two lives at loose ends struggle for harmony in 'The Soloist'

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 24, 2009
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In "The Soloist," Jamie Foxx lets his hair go nappy and swaddles himself in layers of filthy cast-off clothing as Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless and mentally ill Los Angeles street musician. Avoiding eye contact, Nathaniel chatters on in paranoid schizophrenic arias of dysfunctional connection, and you can practically smell the self-righteous Hollywood funk rising off the character.

It's director Joe Wright, though, who brings that funk more than Foxx or Robert Downey Jr., playing the real-life LA Times columnist who befriends Nathaniel and tries to help him. If you've seen the trailer for "The Soloist" - and you probably have, since the film was originally slated for release during last year's Oscar season only to be pulled at the last minute - you may be expecting an inspirational tale in the vein of "Shine," another film about a lost artist who gets his groove back. And you may be expecting the sort of self-congratulatory star gambit wickedly exposed by Downey's monologue last year in "Tropic Thunder," about actors who shoot for awards-season glory by going "the full retard."

Things swiftly sort themselves out, however. Seasoned pros that they are, Foxx and Downey attend to their charac ters and leave the overreaching to Wright. Foxx in particular understands that since Nathaniel can barely deal with the other people in the movie, he can't possibly play to the audience in the seats. It turns out that "The Soloist" isn't so much a story of perseverance and musical triumph as it is of despair, acceptance, and social commitment. The movie's a call to arms: We are our brothers' keepers, it says, and our brothers are in terrible shape.

Nathaniel attended Juilliard, which right there spells a story for Downey's Steve Lopez, banged up from a recent bike accident and himself isolated from his fellow man (and fictional ex-wife, editor Catherine Keener). The movie hints that one of the reasons the nation's newspapers are in such a fix is that they pursue gimmicky human-interest journalism instead of the underlying issues of poverty and societal neglect; it chides us for wanting the feel-good movie the trailer promised us. (I still say it's the Internet.)

So Lopez's initial story results in a reader donating a cello - a trained double bassist, Ayers has been getting by on a violin with two strings - and both the journalist and we sit back, content that genius will reestablish itself. "The Soloist" has more on its mind, though. The script by Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich") sees Ayers, problematically, as a wild animal lost in the city, terrified and incapable of acting in his own interests. Lopez and a well-meaning Philharmonic cellist (Tom Hollander) arrange a concert; it doesn't go well. An apartment is rented; Ayers peeps in at the door like a coyote asked to come inside. Just to sock the metaphor home, the film has Lopez's own home under assault from raccoons, and mines comedy from the bags of coyote urine he hangs around his yard.

Following the bread crumbs of his subject's daily wanderings, the columnist comes into contact with the city's vast homeless population and the understaffed, underfunded support structure trying to alleviate its suffering. Lopez has Ayers store the cello at the real-life Los Angeles Men's Project (LAMP) on skid row, and through his dealings with one of the LAMP social workers (Nelsan Ellis) Lopez is tutored in the project's message: Provide the homeless with food and shelter, respect their lives, don't try to medicate their problems out of your guilt. See them as people.

Yet the movie itself sees them as sympathetic monsters. The skid row sequences are filmed like a full-on horror movie - Fellini doing "Night of the Living Dead" - and while some of LA's homeless population have been cast as themselves, the filmmaking grinds our faces in their physical afflictions and oogedy-boogedy weirdness. There's a line between forcing us to see the American underclass and exploiting them as freaks, and this movie dances all over it.

The problem is that Joe Wright is an extremely skilled filmmaker who is still getting off on that skill. The self-consciously "difficult" traveling shot of Dunkirk in "Atonement" finds its equivalent here in the epic vision of downtown Los Angeles as a modern Bedlam and in the soaring shots of computer-generated pigeons that take flight with Nathaniel's cello solos. Look! says "The Soloist," in the middle of our wealthy nation is a Third World country! Yet the view is that of a horrified tourist goggling through the windows of a passing bus.

The film's title nudges us that we're all soloists by cautious nature and urges us to join together in the human orchestra, much as "Crash" did and with a similar misguided air of apocalypse. What makes "The Soloist" the better movie is that it focuses on only two characters and lets the men playing them dig deep. Downey may be the only Hollywood actor who could portray the mellowing of Steve Lopez without patting himself on the back; Lopez is much the same smart, funny jerk he was at the beginning but with a larger sense of responsibility.

Neither the screenplay nor Foxx, to his great credit, ever "explains" Nathaniel to us, even during the distressing flashback scenes at Juilliard. Ayers had great talent, he heard voices, no one was there to catch him. The movie, for all its flaws, reminds us that everyone is worth catching, but it's the actors who best embody that message. They go the full human being.

THE SOLOIST Directed by: Joe Wright

Written by: Susannah Grant, based on a book by Steve Lopez

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr.

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 109 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (thematic elements, drug use, language)