'The Soloist' never quite connects

While "The Soloist" is replete with fine performances — Robert Downey as Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, Catherine Keener as his editor and ex-wife, and Jamie Foxx as Nathan Anthony Ayers — the story is so familiar that it skirts the edge of predictability and studied familiarity.

The often-used template involves an individual lost to mental illness, living on the street, found by someone who is intent on his or her rescue.

In "The Soloist," Nathan Ayers is a gifted cellist and Julliard dropout who is living on the mean streets of Los Angeles. He also is a schizophrenic, haunted by demons and voices, volatile and determined that he will not take anti-psychotic drugs. Steve Lopez, on a deadline and in search of a story for his column, meets Ayers in L.A.'s Pershing Park, where he is playing Beethoven on a two-string violin, and decides he wants to tell his story.

Thus begins an improbable friendship between these two men — if friendship is truly an accurate description of their relationship. But therein is the challenge of the narrative, for Lopez and Ayers cannot carry on any meaningful interaction. All Lopez can do, over and over, driven by his wish to rescue a man who he knows to be a once-brilliant musician, is try and penetrate Ayers' wall of dissociative behavior and thoughts and logorrheic mumbling.

What the film doesn't offer is any in-depth dialogue between Lopez and, say, one his colleagues about Ayers or about Lopez using Ayers to satisfy his need for a solid story, or about the efficacy of ever helping anyone who battles schizophrenia while resisting treatment of any kind, who prefers the noise of the streets to the quiet of an apartment. The subtext of the film that is never explored is the question as to whether people, in mental and physical extremis, who are so lost that there seems to be no roadmap back, can ever truly be salvaged, no matter the sincerity and commitment of the salvager.

The film does offer a stark glimpse of the more than 11,000 homeless people living in L.A., confined mainly to 50 blocks referred to as Skid Row. It's as if every lost, broken soul has been carried there by a tide of poverty, mental illness, drug abuse, many tormented by a panoply of demons, now wandering the Darwinian streets trying only to survive another day.

What Lopez does offer Ayers is the hand of friendship and discovers that there are moments when that is enough. But there are also moments, lots of them, when it isn't.

Because there is only the most fragile bond connecting Lopez and Ayers, the film seems strangely remote. Ultimately, for Ayers, there is no redemptive moment. For Lopez there is no breakthrough, when the two men face one another in a flash of lucidity and understanding. In truth, for reasons that no one fully comprehends (brain chemistry, emotional chemistry), Ayers has fled into a world apart and chooses to remain there. His only consistent bridge to others and to himself is music, his lifeline except when it isn't.


Here is what "Fighting" isn't: it's not a shallow, pseudo late-teen, breezy film where one kid steps forward and against-all-odds wins the dance competition after falling in love with a girl who initially rejects him and then sees something in him and they merge some street steps, hip-hop, with ballet and overwhelm the judges who find themselves tapping their toes and digging the serious home brew of solid, vibrating, touch-your-soul music with some strings and wood winds and French horns for backup.

Well, actually it does resemble that Hollywood template, but in a raw and unpretentious and hard-edged way that makes "Fighting" a solid, entertaining B movie.

The untrained kid, Shawn McArthur (Channing Tatum, who made his acting debut in the "Step Up" franchise), arrives in New York City and discovers that he either scrambles on the mean streets, where he is selling fake iPods and bogus Harry Potter books, or he will have to return to Birmingham, Ala., and a family (especially a father) from which he is estranged.

Scrambling is quickly defined as hustling (everyone is working a hustle), which means following the lead of the street-wise Harvey (Terrance Howard) who, after seeing Shawn punch out some streeties, sets him up with fights in a network of underground fight clubs. It's a stark and grim world that Shawn steps into, possessing little forgiveness for error. What makes his situation interesting is that he is simultaneously unprepared and yet surprisingly prepared, thus yielding a sustained tension.

Of course there is a love interest, of sorts, between Zulay (Zulay Henaro) and Shawn, but it isn't framed as the typical, chemistry-laden young love where country boy meets the no-nonsense chica from the hood, and boy finally gets girl.

Instead, the interaction of all the characters has a bluntness about it, an honesty that is unexpected, not unlike the many scenes shot in some of the seediest spots in the Bronx and Brooklyn, meaning we're not in Seattle while being told we're in New York.

Of course, this is an urban fable, of sorts. What it's not is an urban fairy tale, and therein is an interesting difference.

If you love movies, love watching a director and cinematographer collaborate and fashion a story with a relaxed intensity (not a contradiction in terms) which allows the actors to develop their characters in a dark, gritty milieu that is often claustrophobic and ominous, you will enjoy "Fighting."

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