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The Soloist

For actors, the appeal of The Soloist is obvious. Two men, trapped inside their own heads, find a strange kinship in one of the worst parts of Los Angeles. One suffers from imaginary voices leading him astray, one from his enormous ego. In other words, typecasting.

Except that Robert Downey, Jr. plays the overweening Steve Lopez and Jamie Foxx plays the tormented Nathaniel Ayres. Despite the subject matter providing easy bait for Oscar, that shouldn't lessen the solid performances both men give in Joe Wright's film. They both slide easily into the skins of their characters.

For all that, The Soloist doesn't have the rhythm of the kind of movie awards fall over. All the notes are there, but Wright doesn't conduct Susannah Grant's script into the kind of symphony that fills us with laughter and tears. It's just a pleasant enough piece that looks matter-of-factly at a year in the life of these two men.

Not that Wright doesn't try to push it. From the beginning we see Downey's character as literally bruised and banged up (after a bicycle accident) as the newspaper he works for is metaphorically. He's disconnected from the culture he writes about as a columnist for the L.A. Times, not interested in getting to know his neighbors and working under an editor who was once his wife, played by Catherine Keener.

Until he meets Jamie Foxx's Nathaniel, in fact, we're meant to believe that Lopez writes fluff in his column. But at least the fluff connects with people in a way he can't.

Of course, Nathaniel can't connect, either. Tormented by schizophrenia, the once-promising Juilliard student now plays a violin with only two strings that he keeps in his shopping cart full of useless treasures (including, none-too-subtly, two palms as one might find during the Easter season of Jesus' rebirth).

When Lopez discovers that Nathaniel did indeed attend Juilliard, he dedicates a column to him. One reader is so moved that she donates her cello, which was his original instrument of choice before succumbing to mental illness.

From there, we get very predictable set-pieces. Keener has one of her trademarked drunken scenes in which she publicly spells out all the flaws in Lopez' character, just in case we didn't get it. Nathaniel experienced a very distanced racism as a child - though there's no way that really connects to his eventual mental illness.

A well-meaning symphonic cellist (Tom Hollander) keeps doing all the wrong things in dealing with Nathaniel, probably because he's a fervent Christian. (His attempts to "subtly" convert Nathaniel blind him to the cues that it's not working.) And of course, when Nathaniel hears Beethoven, he is transported, and watching him, Lopez realizes, is watching someone touch God. Oh, if only that cellist had shut up long enough to join Lopez in his epiphany!

Instead of an original work, there it becomes very paint-by-numbers. But when Wright deals more matter of factly with his subject, The Soloist becomes, if not affecting, fairly interesting.

Dropping its bombast, the film delineates how frustrating and devastating schizophrenia can be, to both sufferer and those that try to help him. Its changes are unpredictable, and therefore they have to live with it instead of trying to resolve it. An odd message for a Hollywood portrayal, perhaps, but an accurate one, and Wright and his creative team should be commended for it.

At times it even becomes almost documentary, as Wright uses many street people as characters in Skid Row. Without hammering it home, the film shows a multitude of sufferers, and that they need to be treated with a dignity few of us seem willing to offer.

Those subtle moments also extend to the acting. What makes Downey so compelling is that he can handle being matter of fact and still hold our attention. We can see him thinking. Foxx doesn't do quite as well, as it's clear that he's chosen to make external choices in wardrobe and make-up to remind us how loud the voices are for Nathaniel at all times.

Yet Wright makes the overall portrayal work, to the detriment of his subplots. If Wright meant to make some larger point about the death of journalism, it must have been cut. Thus Stephen Root, one of the best character actors working today, seems like he's subbing in from some other film.

So we can cut bait on this one come Oscar time. It still has an honesty that works, but even a seasoned journalist like Steve Lopez would know that sometimes the truth just isn't as colorful as we want it to be.

Derek McCaw

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