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At the Movies: Playing Solo: The Soloist **1/2

There is an odd quality to Joe Wright’s The Soloist that seeks to portray the homeless and mentally ill population on the streets of Los Angeles like colorful Dickensian creations pluckily going about their noble business amid the crackheads and trash-filled streets. But it is not any kind of tangible truth, nor is it a faithful rendering of the life of Nathaniel Ayers, or his relationship with LA Times reporter Steve Lopez.The film doesn’t really work as an homage to Lopez and Ayers. It works better as a feel-good story about the rough lives of the mentally ill homeless. It works if you happen to be a fan of Robert Downey, Jr. And it works really well if you significantly lower your expectations in hopes of finding a moderately entertaining, non-challenging day at the cinema.Late last year, during Oscar season, it seemed like The Soloist would be in the running for several awards, which set it up to fail out of the gate. Early reviews declared it too sappy to ever be taken seriously as awards bait and at some point the film was pushed back to the following year.The truth is, it, like so many other films, can’t really take the weight of the high expectations of bloggers and journalists who unfairly predict it to be the recipient, ultimately, of Oscars. It’s hard not see it that way; Jamie Foxx, who plays Ayers, is already an Oscar winner taking on the challenging role of a paranoid schizophrenic. Downey, Jr., is enjoying the best years of his career to date. Joe Wright is already an Oscar-baity director; it had Oscar written all over it.Until people starting seeing it. Reactions weren’t great as expected and at some point all faith was lost in The Soloist. Now that it has been put before an audience, it is coming out looking better than expected. Although not much. It probably needs fresh eyes, people who aren’t as familiar with the real Lopez (who looks and acts and writes and is nothing like Downey, Jr.) and Ayers (much less sloppy and cartoonish than Foxx).The film’s most interesting elements are not the montages out of Nathaniel’s mind, nor are they the overly dramatic flashbacks that attempt to show us how Nathaniel descended into madness and ended up on the streets. No, the most interesting thing here is how it brings to light the point of music, genius, and even God in our lives. Just because someone is gifted beyond any plausible explanation does not mean that they will be successful in life. Often life requires a set of skills that cancel out the kind of focus one needs to play as well as Ayers does. The actors are all wonderful, even if the script, written by Susannah Grant, is too predictable and simple-minded to reveal the beauty of this story, which is mostly embedded in that which can’t be put on screen so easily but must be read, thought out and realized. Most of us go to the movies not for reality but for an escape from reality. To that end, The Soloist succeeds. Does that make it worthwhile? When I ask myself that question I think of the real people depicted in the film and I think of how they would feel if someone made a movie (or wrote columns) about their reality. I wondered if they would care whether or not we liked the Hollywood version of their story. I decided that they probably didn’t mind it, even half-baked. Most of us never get our stories written at all.

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