On paper, The Soloist sounds like a classic softhearted middlebrow awards-bait movie. Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) is a homeless schizophrenic on the streets of Los Angeles whose outward dementia mismatched clothing topped by full sequined jacket; hair plastered down on either side; a mode of ''talk'' that's really a jumble of word salad conceals a delicate, refined soul obsessed with the beauty of music. Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times who meets Nathaniel on the street and learns, after a bit of investigating, that he was once a budding cello virtuoso at Juilliard. He writes a column about him, and as Nathaniel starts to gain a bit of notoriety, the two men redeem each other. Or not.
The Soloist is based on a true story, but it takes pains not to sweeten the facts. And so the film, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), draws us in without offering the expected ''inspirational'' catharsis. It's all a bit shapeless, yet made with sincerity and taste, and the two actors seize your sympathy. Downey plays Lopez with a missionary zeal but never sanctifies him, and Foxx gives a lyrical performance as a man so trapped in a whirlpool of feeling (there's a hint that the inner voices he conjures up are racial demons) that he can't connect with anything but Beethoven. His madness has removed all impediments to bliss, and Foxx is such a good actor you can just about hear the music in his head. B