- 'Gimme the vest. I get to be crossing guard.'
*The Soloist (PG-13)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
As trade for rescue and partial rehabilitation, a brilliantly talented but extremely disadvantaged person of color changes a white man's life. True story, documented in a major newspaper, then a book. And now a movie, because that's what stories like this tend to do. The only pending question is how much it'll matter that the white man is played by a guy who did a movie in blackface last year.
That would be Robert Downey Jr., whose antisentimental charisma is the most dramatically definitive feature of The Soloist, and its saving grace. He plays Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, on whose book the film is based. The eponymous musician, played by Jamie Foxx, is the man Lopez discovered living from a shopping cart on the streets of L.A., scratching out baroque and classical masterpieces on battered instruments to the applause of pigeons' flapping wings.
As Lopez discovered, Nathaniel Ayers was a musical prodigy, a poor Cleveland kid who got himself a scholarship to Juilliard in the '70s — one of the few black students to do so — but developed schizophrenia there and couldn't stay. Perfect column fodder, in other words.
Lopez gets interested in Ayers right away, just as he gets antsy about having any kind of real relationship with the guy, let alone any responsibility to him.
"I don't want to be his only thing," the columnist complains to his editor and ex, played with wizened appeal by Catherine Keener. She sees through him, of course. What matters is whether he'll be able to see through himself. Actually, this is something a musical genius with schizophrenia might know a thing or two about.
Foxx's performance — compelling, if contrived — is fine. But the movie belongs to Downey. He plays the obligatory voice-over narration with the right calculation and detachment, as if everything Lopez says, and feels and thinks, is an early draft of his column being brainstormed, read aloud and sounded out.
Otherwise, and probably because they have the noble intention to avoid nobility, writer Susannah Grant and director Joe Wright take a rather literal approach to The Soloist. Even Wright's experiments with getting inside Ayers' mind seem perfunctory. Lopez takes Ayers to a concert, and as the music swells, the picture fades into color-field abstractions. This is a filmmaker who, in Atonement, restaged the entire Allied evacuation of Dunkirk; but where the ephemeral beauties of Beethoven's Third Symphony are concerned, the best he offers is basically an iTunes screensaver?
It's not that Wright lacks vision, or hearing. There's an inspired moment of music played against straight-down shots of the city from cruising-altitude elevation. It happens briefly, during a transition, but the point is well made: Listen to how transporting this really is, how elevated you can feel, amid the inescapable noise.
That must be what the film's tagline means by "emotionally soaring drama." It's a fair point, and at least more discreetly put than just "For your consideration, Academy." And speaking of discretion, who'd have thought we'd one day be able to rely on Robert Downey Jr. for that? Then again, as regards safe passage from Tropic Thunder's blackface to The Soloist's sepia tones of redemptive movie friendship, who else but he could make it happen?