- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Inspiring, relevant and real, the story of Nathaniel Ayers _ a schizophrenic but wildly talented Juilliard-trained cellist living on the streets of downtown L.A. _ captivated Los Angeles Times readers in 2005.

The fact that columnist Steve Lopez didn’t just ignore him like most people would _ that he not only spoke to Ayers but befriended and wrote movingly about him _ added to the unexpected humanity of the tale.

“The Soloist” takes all those innately engaging details and turns them into what is essentially a made-for-Lifetime movie, albeit one populated by Oscar winners and nominees.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as Lopez, with Jamie Foxx playing opposite him as Ayers. Wunderkind Brit Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement”) is the director, working from a script by Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”).

On paper, you can see how this project had major promise (and it was initially was scheduled to come out at the height of prestige-movie season last year, only to be bumped to pre-summer). In execution, it’s an awkward mix of gritty city visuals and mawkish sentiments in which even actors the caliber of Downey, Foxx and Catherine Keener seem to have had difficulty finding nuance.

Sure, Downey displays his usual quick-wittedness, and a range that allows him to be light on his feet yet also show some vulnerability. When “The Soloist” is about Lopez committing actual journalism, putting his experience to work to determine who Ayers is and how he ended up homeless despite his potential, it’s a compelling mystery. (Keener co-stars as a fictional character, Lopez’s editor and ex-wife, who still struggles to keep him in line.)

But Foxx is just off-putting; he’s functioning at one repetitive, manic speed the whole time. Downey often seems frustrated _ like he can’t wait to get away from him _ a sensation with which the audience will surely be able to sympathize. And the combination of stream-of-consciousness rants, fixations and phobias he presents as the manifestations of Ayers’ mental illness instead come off like a “Rain Man” imitation. Hopefully that’s not what Foxx, a highly skilled mimic and Oscar-winner for “Ray,” had in mind.

Nevertheless, a tentative friendship forms between these two vastly different men, one that requires Lopez to follow Ayers through some of the most squalid, dangerous parts of downtown. Wright finds some tension in these scenes; there’s an unpredictability factor to how the homeless will react to Lopez. He also manages to treat the displaced and the mentally ill with some decency, but too many other moments feel like a gratuitous parade of crackheads. (Wright used hundreds of real-life homeless people as background extras.)

In return, Lopez takes Ayers to the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall to reconnect with the music he loves most _ Beethoven _ with performances by the L.A. Philharmonic, led by then-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Again, it’s a moment that should have had some inherent grace, but Wright bombards it with lights and colors, ostensibly as an outward depiction of the rapturous feeling Ayers is enjoying. Similarly, the entire third act feels like one long emotional crescendo.

“The Soloist,” a DreamWorks and Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language. Running time: 116 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.


Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.

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