Movie review: "The Soloist" needs better backup

Photo provided by Universal Studios
The two performances drive the film, along with a Beethoven-dominated soundtrack.

A matinee showing of “The Soloist” is just the way to see it: cheap tickets, empty theater, and a movie worth only the $5 you paid to see it.

“The Soloist” is about the real-life friendship between LA Times reporter Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) and a homeless, schizophrenic Julliard Music School dropout named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, Jr. (Jamie Foxx).

Lopez spends his nights downing bottles of wine while dancing in his bathrobe to Stevie Wonder. Ayers, once the classmate of renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma at Julliard, ends up living on the streets in Los Angeles because of his illness, which is where the two meet for the first time beneath a looming statue of Beethoven.

Ayers, playing a two-stringed violin, is utterly oblivious to Lopez’s attempts to ask him questions about himself. Lopez searches Ayers out again and so starts the beginning of a long relationship. The friendship seems at first to be about the help Lopez can give to the musician lost to his illness. Ayers even goes so far as to call Mr. Lopez a god. The relationship is good for Lopez’s career. He writes columns about the friendship, and the readers of the LA Times are enthralled by their remarkable story, but it soon starts to help Lopez in personal ways too.

The two characters have two very different personalities, though that of Foxx’s character is caused by his mental disorder. While Lopez is dark, nuanced and cynical, Ayers spouts streams of words and asks nonsensical questions like: “Are you flying that airplane?”

“No, uh, Mr. Ayers, I’m right here,” Lopez responds after following Ayers’ pointing finger to a plane flying overhead.

Being friends with Ayers often leaves Lopez exhausted and confused. Ayers’ schizophrenic behavior makes Lopez realize that Ayers needs medical help desperately.

The two performances drive the film, along with a Beethoven-dominated soundtrack. Briton Joe Wright’s direction captures the bleak and beautiful look of the world of the homeless in downtown Los Angeles, but that’s all the film really has going for it.

Although it captures the seriousness of life for a mentally ill street musician teetering on the edge of doom, the film’s writing leaves something to be desired and is even dry and dull at times. The movie loses energy as they enter the Walt Disney Concert Hall to attend a rehearsal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and splashes of dancing light highly reminiscent of “Fantasia” flit across the screen. While visually pleasing, it is not very original.

Comic relief dots the movie at regular intervals, from the vulgar — Mr. Lopez slipping in his own pee while submitting urine for a drug test — to the dramatic — Ayers threatens to cut Lopez like a fish.

The film is almost too long. It ends at the right time, the point when you’re bored and have to pee. Just don’t slip.

The Soloist is rated PG-13. There’s nothing in it a thirteen-year-old hasn’t heard or heard of.