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Tone-deaf: The Soloist 

Director Joe Wright is the British chap behind Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, so maybe placing him in charge of the decidedly American concoction The Soloist was an attempt to show that he's able to bust some Ang Lee moves by leaping over diverse genres in a single bound. Maybe he can -- I've never been in favor of placing anyone in an artistic straightjacket that limits their choice of material -- but in this instance, the overwhelmed Wright can't do much to bring any sense of style or substance to yet another film that comes off as little more than a liberal screed.

By no means is The Soloist a painful watch, and it has its merits scattered about, like so many chocolate sprinkles adorning a scoop of ice cream. But for a movie that's about compassion and understanding, it makes for a shockingly indifferent experience, filled with too many calculated homilies to allow for much more than superficial connections. It may be based on a true story, but it feels synthetic all the way.

The heart of the story -- the relationship between Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), a Los Angeles newspaper columnist, and Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), a homeless man who was once a Julliard-approved musician -- actually feels like the picture's most artificial component. Perhaps that's due to its similarities to Resurrecting the Champ, another recent film about the friendship between a white journalist (Josh Hartnett) and a black homeless man prone to delusional behavior (Samuel L. Jackson). Or maybe it's because of its greater role as yet another picture that tries to assuage middle-class guilt by using a proxy to allow moviegoers insight into the travails of the most unfortunate among us. But the main problem with The Soloist is that it usually only skirts the issues it raises (homelessness, lack of health care, mental illness, etc.), with the genuinely raw scenes -- Nathaniel's physical assault of Steve, Steve's ex-wife and editor (Catherine Keener) drunkenly taking him to task -- too few and far between.

Foxx and Downey do what they can to keep the story prickly, but when they have to contend with scenes as offensive and patronizing as the one that ends the film, even they can't prevent The Soloist from frequently hitting the wrong keys.

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