"The Soloist" is a duet for homeless street musician and crusading columnist. Another way to put it: The film showcases a 102-piece orchestra, in which a yearning solo cello struggles, mightily, to be heard amid 101 Hollywood strings of schmaltz.
You couldn't ask for better actors; the real-life characters, however, deserved a more dimensional screenplay. When the end credits roll on director Joe Wright's picture and Jamie Foxx's name comes up first, it's more or less news to the audience. He got top billing? Screenwriter Susannah Grant, whose "Erin Brockovich" had the virtue of telling one real-life crusader's story, here labors to keep two intersecting lives in focus. We get only a drive-by sense of who Nathaniel Ayers, the former Juilliard music student plagued by undiagnosed schizophrenia, really is underneath the agonized surface. The film's poster lets you know who the movie's about: It's about the star Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez, played by Robert Downey Jr., whose influential columns on Ayers and his downtown L.A. skid row existence led to huge readership, political reform, a book deal and a movie sale.
The dramatic lopsidedness may be inevitable, because Lopez serves as the insider's entry point to an outsider's universe. Trolling for column fodder, Downey's Lopez meets Foxx's Ayers in downtown L.A.'s Pershing Park, which qualifies as one of the stranger urban slabs of concrete ever to be called a park. Ayers is playing Beethoven on a battered old two-string violin, near a statue of Beethoven, the muse for his precarious existence. "I apologize for my appearance," he says. "I've had a few setbacks." Lopez, whose desk at the Times is surrounded by empty ones owing to downsizing, files him away under "possible column subject." But when Ayers mentions his former Juilliard classmates, the bells start ringing. What is this man's story?
Like any biopic -- less than most, in fact -- this one deploys the truth when it sees fit. Screenwriter Grant gives Lopez a fictional editor, played by Catherine Keener, who's also his fictional ex-wife. Smaller adjustments include the decision to go easy on the anti-Semitic and homophobic strains in Ayers' manic verbal riffs, before and after Lopez helps guide him to the protection of the L.A. social services agency known as Lamp Community.
The main challenge in "The Soloist" for director Wright, whose earlier, fluidly observant work I admire greatly, concerns finding a visual approach that honors both the life Lopez leads (workplace and domestic issues, including a raccoon infestation at his somewhat lonely L.A. domicile) and Ayers' perilous street-level existence. This is the story of a complicated and fraught friendship, and I'm not sure Wright and his collaborators figured out how much Hollywood baloney and how much naturalistic grunge to apply to it. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, Wright's colleague on the lush period piece " Atonement," and Wright's longtime editor Paul Tothill contribute to a surface sheen and a tight, slightly nervous rhythm, but the effect is impersonal. The script hits its emotional marks, but often obviously, and you notice because the effective scenes -- particularly an emotional blowout by Ayers, newly installed in a downtown apartment by Lopez and Ayers' sister played by LisaGay Hamilton -- really do spring to life. Foxx finally gets a chance to show another side of his character besides generalized, logorrheic mental illness. Here, Foxx's rage and confusion startle, and Downey's panic feels completely real.
Backed by his newfound A-list stardom, Downey brings to the project a wry swagger -- crucial in an essentially reactive role. I wish, though, that "The Soloist" hadn't spent so much time dealing with Lopez's crises of conscience and career, even as they relate to Ayers' story. When the preoccupations of a columnist are given greater weight than the life-and-death details of a homeless onetime prodigy, a screenwriter takes the wrong sort of risk. Also, the way Wright shoots the real-life homeless population of downtown L.A. (which remains staggering), it's as background, rather than amplification. Wright may have been miscast on this assignment. And Downey and Foxx may well have felt some frustration unrelated to their characters' frustrations, working on a script affording them lots of situation and drama but not much countermelody to augment the main theme.