An old-fashioned tale for a newfangled world, Joe Wright's overwrought drama turns on a series of columns begun in 2005 by Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez, an old-school vox populi whose writing about his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, a musically gifted, schizophrenic homeless black man on the city's Skid Row, drew an outpouring of reader sympathy. Wright, who brought us the ghosts of upper-crust England past with Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, seems an odd choice to direct a movie set in the Other Los Angeles, and he vulgarizes Lopez's intelligent populism. Using local non-pro actors, he pumps up Lopez's laconically described Skid Row into a Ken Russell hellhole of social outcasts, a florid backdrop for Lopez's steep learning curve about the man he wants to save from himself. Screenwriter Susannah Grant has turned the happily married Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) into a barely socialized basket case divorced from his wife and boss (Catherine Keener). Stalwartly resisting the overkill, Downey delivers his lines in a flat mumble that's astutely complemented by Jamie Foxx, whose beautifully modulated performance as Nathaniel catches the way people with psychotic illnesses slip in and out of rationality. Foxx and Downey's disciplined duet come close to redeeming The Soloist from its visual excesses, but Wright leaves us with a parting shot of the dancing homeless that shamelessly exploits the very people he means to champion.
Downey Jr. makes journalists look good.
Opens at Guild 45 and other theaters, Fri., April 24. Rated PG-13. 119 minutes.