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The Soloist (12A)

Down and out of tune

They've called it The Soloist, but the film is actually more of a duet. It's based on a book by an LA Times reporter named Steve Lopez, who in 2005 began writing a series of columns about a man he stumbled on in the street playing the violin.,/p>

The violin was missing a couple of strings, and so too, it turned out, was the man. Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless person dressed in garish thriftstore motley, had a history of mental illness, yet he was also a one-time cello prodigy who dropped out of the Juilliard School. Lopez's column about his friendship with Ayers was a huge hit with Angeleno readers, and soon Hollywood wanted a piece of it.

The resulting film is a curious beast. You can see its potential as a crowd-pleaser, its combination of music and madness the same formula that won Shine its place in the sun. Yet it's also been shaped as an issue movie by the writer Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and the director Joe Wright, whose track record (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) would not have suggested such an inclination. What that issue really is seems to change during the course of the story. It begins quite intriguingly with Lopez (Robert Downey Jnr) falling off his bicycle, being rushed to hospital and returned home with his face bashed in. Too bad nobody has called him to check how he is. He seems slightly adrift, estranged from his editor ex-wife (Catherine Keener) and despondent about the crisis in the newspaper business (join the club).

Out hunting for a story one day Lopez overhears a homeless man, Nathaniel (Jamie Foxx), playing on a violin, and engages him in conversation – or rather, listens to his burbling stream-of-consciousness, much of it about his beloved Beethoven. Lopez rummages a little and discovers that this trolley-trundling vagrant was once a cellist of great promise. He puts Nathaniel's story in his column, and decides that he'll try, somehow, to rescue him from destitution – regardless of whether Nathaniel wants to be rescued or not. The Soloist finds dramatic texture in this uncertain friendship: are they just writer and subject, or is Lopez a Good Samaritan to Nathaniel's lost soul? The way we would expect the story to go – the Hollywood way – is for the journalist to redeem the musician by putting him back on stage and so letting the world hear his genius.

That the film-makers resist this route is honourable, though it perhaps has to do with the fact that the lives on which it's based are still unresolved. The direction it does take is more sobering than you'd imagine. Lopez, deciding to take charge, visits a rehab centre on Skid Row where he hopes to find a place for Nathaniel to live, somewhere at least more secure than the graffitoed underpass and the doorways he now inhabits. "I used to sleep on Wall Street," Nathaniel muses, "but it's too dirty." In following Lopez's mission the film opens out a different perspective on Los Angeles, investigating streets around the Row that look like some Hogarthian vision of hopelessness. People, mostly black people, mill around aimlessly, while the camera noses up to the various addicts and derelicts who hang around the local shelter, Lamp Community. Wright seemingly deals with the real-life denizens of this forlorn place, and listens to them talking almost in the manner of a documentarist. Lopez, in voiceover, describes it as "a lost colony of broken helpless souls," but it's much less poetic than that.

This glimpse into the inferno of American destitution – an end title informs us there are 90,000 homeless in Los Angeles – prompts a number of questions, though let's keep it down to two. First, why hasn't this country got an NHS? And second, where exactly is the film going with this? You sense that some sort of uplift is around the corner once Lopez installs Nathaniel and his precious cello in an apartment, despite the latter's professed dread of interior spaces. But the film is still hobbled by its refusal to make clear just how damaged Nathaniel is. At first he's seen as a sort of holy fool, a gentle savant who just wants to spread the good news about Beethoven. Then a sequence of awkward flashbacks recount his mental disintegration as a young man, plagued by voices in his head. Then the possibility that he might be a paranoid schizophrenic is dangled before us, insinuating that he may be dangerous to others. You feel this information has been withheld just so that the film can suddenly blackjack us with an outburst of violence. I also wish they'd rethought Tom Hollander's role as a cello tutor who happens to be a religious nincompoop.

The least convincing aspect of the film is its blurring of the line between schizophrenia and artistic genius, and the idea that simple "friendship" is the best medicine for a mentally ill person. Isn't actual medicine the best medicine? The muddled thinking is unfortunate, because The Soloist in its best moments does play on the heartstrings; the interplay between Downey Jnr and Foxx is funny and sometimes affecting, particularly in the later stages when Lopez realises the scale of the problem he's dealing with. He is rebuked for turning his friendship into a crusade ("You can't fix LA," someone tells him), yet you feel a kind of admiration for him too, because he believed it worth pursuing in the first place. And its oddness is chastening: what's ostensibly a triumph-of-the-spirit number doesn't make you feel very triumphant after all.