Nathaniel Ayers, the nominal protagonist of " The Soloist," is the latest in a long line of real-life prodigies enshrined on film. Like pianist David Helfgott in "Shine," he's a damaged musical savant; like economist John Nash in "A Beautiful Mind," he's plagued by hallucinations that shatter his fragile brilliance.
As Ayers, a Juilliard-trained cellist reduced to homelessness, Foxx turns "The Soloist" from a mildly effective inspirational tale into an aggressive awards-season advertisement. Just as he did for his Oscar-winning role as Ray Charles in the 2004 biopic " Ray," Foxx proves himself cannily adept at impersonation - not the same as acting - by yammering to himself insanely and clutching his ears to shush his demons. That's what mental illness is supposed to look like in the movies, and so it does.
Thank goodness, then, for Robert Downey Jr. as Steve Lopez, the Los Angeles Times journalist whose unlikely friendship with Ayers inspired a series of columns in 2005 and a book in 2008. Lopez may be self-centered, acerbic and especially thoughtless regarding his ex-wife (an unusually vulnerable Catherine Keener), but Downey makes him winningly likable.
With small gestures or a single word, the actor conveys a complicated, comical personality.
The film itself wavers between cliches and bursts of imagination. Director Joe Wright ( "Atonement") has a surprisingly mischievous camera: It stays deadpan during moments of slapstick and barely mentions the brassiere strapped to Ayers' cello. But there's no avoiding the chores in Susannah Grant's script, and so "The Soloist" eventually becomes a lecture about the plight of the homeless.
Speaking of things predictable: Do we really need to see inside Ayers' mind as he listens to a symphony? It's a beautiful swirl of colors, as anyone could have guessed.
PLOT The real-life story of a journalist who discovers a homeless musical prodigy.
CAST Jaime Foxx, Robert Downey, Jr., Catherine Keener
PLAYING AT Area theaters.
BOTTOM LINE The subtly brilliant Downey almost makes this typical inspirational tale worth the ticket price.
(mild language, adult themes)