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Film Review - 'The Soloist' Is a Moving Duet Between Downey and Foxx

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Friday, April 24, 2009

It's impossible not to be moved by "The Soloist," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. The true story of a newspaper columnist and his friendship with a schizophrenic street musician in Los Angeles, the film is suffused with heartbreak and humanism, as it takes one man's grim story -- early promise, bright future, mental breakdown, despair -- and turns it into a spiritual meditation on friendship.

"The Soloist" veers dangerously into Magical Negro territory, where black characters serve as vessels and vehicles for white benevolence and redemption. But the movie, which was directed by Joe Wright ("Atonement"), just barely avoids falling into that offensive trap, mostly thanks to frank, unshowy performances by Downey and Foxx, both of whom are in top form here. Downey plays Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who happens upon Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx) playing a two-stringed violin in downtown Los Angeles's Pershing Square. Lopez discovers that Ayers once attended Juilliard, and his resulting columns wind up taking the writer not only into the tortured history and mind of his subject, but also into the Bosch-like world of the city's Skid Row.

Wright plays it straight, but he also takes interesting little risks, straying from the episodic narrative to insert moments of abstraction and metaphor (two birds flying over downtown, a recurring leitmotif of raccoons that threaten Lopez's bourgeois life). And he spends a lot of time on Skid Row, immersing viewers in its filth, disorder and physical violence. That insistent focus, as well as a quietly radical third-act reversal, raises "The Soloist" above its own conventions. Hollywood loves the heroics of good intentions, but this movie is just as interested in the road to hell.

-- Ann Hornaday

The Soloist PG-13, 119 minutes Contains thematic elements, drug use and profanity. Area theaters.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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