(CNN) -- A journalist -- Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times -- meets a homeless guy on the street playing Beethoven on the last two strings on a fiddle.
Jamie Foxx as a mentally ill musician takes to the streets of Los Angeles in "The Soloist."
He's not performing for the public. If he has an audience in mind at all, it's the German composer -- he's placed himself in the shadow of Beethoven's statue in Pershing Square in Los Angeles.
The guy says his name is Nathaniel Ayers and that he went to Juilliard.
His story checks out, and Lopez writes it up: A prodigious musical talent grows up in the ghetto, earns a scholarship to Juilliard School to play the cello, succumbs to schizophrenia, flunks out and winds up -- 20 years later -- pushing a shopping trolley up and down Grand Avenue, playing violin for the birds. ("The pigeons clap when they fly," Nathaniel explains.)
Readers are moved. Someone sends a cello to the paper, and in delivering it, Lopez becomes embroiled in Nathaniel's life. This gift has strings attached, in more ways than one. Lopez wants Nathaniel to move to a community shelter. He wants him to take meds, to resume his lessons. He wants to fix him.
Hollywood tends to do this stuff too easily, equating mental illness with artistic or spiritual transcendence and most often trivializing both in the process.
Written by Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich") and directed by Joe Wright ("Atonement"), "The Soloist" isn't immune to the temptation, but it's smart enough to locate the cliché in the reporter's own need for healing.
Lopez -- played by Robert Downey Jr. -- accepts the role of fairy godfather with some reluctance (and alarm when Nathaniel takes to calling his savior his "God"), but we note that his own house is scarcely a home.
His wife (Catherine Keener), also his editor, has gone. The kids are gone. Paintings are stacked against the walls. His belongings are in boxes -- not so different from the junk in Nathaniel's cart. Perhaps Lopez is the soloist here?
At any rate, Downey plays him like a virtuoso. In the normal way of things, this picture should belong to Nathaniel (Jamie Foxx). He's making beautiful music, wears a star-spangled wardrobe and flips between states of semi-autistic reiteration, periods of calm and fury.
Somehow, though, Foxx slips into a supporting role. That's not necessarily the actor's fault or even to the detriment of the movie, though flashbacks to his youth are relatively one-note.
Wright makes every effort to put us into Nathaniel's head, but these expressionist flourishes are only sporadically effective. Whichever way the screenplay may have been weighted, I suspect Wright saw what he had in Downey and let him carry it.
He's been sucking up the accolades for a long time now, and rightfully so, but until "Iron Man" most of Downey's best work has been restricted to supporting roles. (I'd pick out "One Night Stand," "Zodiac," "Wonder Boys" and "A Scanner Darkly.")
This time he assumes center stage through sheer focus. He's unerringly truthful, never showy, not the cynical snark he could easily caricature. Under Downey's influence, "The Soloist" becomes a movie about a concerned middle-aged white man learning what commitment means.
There are other good things: Wright, who also made "Pride and Prejudice," is a gifted -- if self-conscious -- stylist, and he seizes on downtown L.A. as if nobody had filmed there before.
More importantly, it's a film you find yourself listening to intently. He holds back the music for long stretches and makes it count. (In one ostentatious sequence set in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Beethoven's Third is rendered in a fantasia of abstract colors.)
Best of all, maybe, are the faces of the homeless Wright shares with us -- old faces, odd, asymmetrical, sometimes bewildered faces. Faces the like of which we don't see on movie screens too often, but vivid and painfully real in a way that -- for whatever reason -- eludes the heroic efforts of Foxx.
"The Soloist" doesn't muster much in the way of a grand finale -- nothing but a tentative bridge across the racial and class divide. Maybe even that gesture of solidarity smacks of Hollywood hokum -- Wright lays everything on a bit thick, even his restraint -- but at least this movie acknowledges the divide. It's worth seeing for Downey at his peak, and hearing for Beethoven, too.
"The Soloist" is rated PG-13 and runs 109 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's review, click here.