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The Soloist (PG-13) ***

A scene from "The Soloist"
A scene from "The Soloist"

Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

Among its other positive qualities, The Soloist is proof that the resurgence of Robert Downey Jr.’s career is one of the best things to happen in Hollywood in recent memory.

A film with a heart this tender requires a few rough edges to keep it honest, and Downey — who came roaring back to box-office life in last summer’s blockbuster Iron Man and followed that success with an Oscar nomination for the comedy Tropic Thunder — gives a nervy, riveting performance in The Soloist. He plays real-life Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who befriended Nathaniel Ayers (the understated Jamie Foxx, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of bluesman Ray Charles), a street musician.

Early in the film, Lopez stumbles upon Ayers as the homeless man coaxes beautiful music from a two-stringed violin in a park near the Times’ downtown office. Mesmerized, Lopez does what any reporter would do upon hearing the guy mention Juilliard. He starts digging. Eventually he turns up the truth, that the soft-spoken Ayers was a student there, a star on the cello, but long before graduation he abruptly dropped out.

Portrayed here as a decent but inherently selfish guy, Lopez wants a story, but he also hopes to turn Nathaniel’s life around, to get him off the dangerous streets at night and expose him to the joys of live music again. But Ayers’ mental illness, which Foxx displays in an onslaught of barely coherent whispers, flummoxes the writer each time he comes up with a new plan. Their relationship is more than merely complicated. On the rare occasions during which Ayers loses control, it is quite literally dangerous.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) excels at delving into the heart of what makes his characters tick, and in The Soloist he provides a provocative backdrop, underscoring the story of the friendship with pointed observations on the marginalized lives of L.A.’s homeless. Ayers’ back story is less fleshed out than it could be, but the scenes on the ugly streets are some of the film’s best. They’re edgy and nerve-wracking, and we feel every bit of Lopez’s fear and confusion as he tries to navigate his way through the maze of psychosis, poverty and dread.

Less successful is Wright’s attempt to show us what experiencing a live orchestra is like for Ayers. When Lopez drags the reluctant man to a rehearsal, and Ayers hears the Beethoven he loves, Wright shifts to images of bursting color, the light show ostensibly mimicking Ayers’ mind. The trick falls short of capturing the sensory overload of joyous sound and feels a bit jarring against the naturalistic style of the rest of the movie. Strangely, the inspirational power of The Soloist lies not in its music but in the heart and soul of its intriguing characters.

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener.

Director: Joe Wright.

Screenwriter: Susannah Grant. Based on the book by Steve Lopez.

Producers: Gary Foster, Russ Krasnoff.

A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 109 minutes. Thematic elements, language, some drug use.