Bumped out of its original fall release date by a crowded awards field, The Soloist comes to us in April, the month in which a lot of what hits theaters is either hard to watch or hard to market. The first American production by classy British filmmaker Joe Wright (Atonement), about battling homelessness and mental illness, is a bit of both.

Bumped out of its original fall release date by a crowded awards field, The Soloist comes to us in April, the month in which a lot of what hits theaters is either hard to watch or hard to market. The first American production by classy British filmmaker Joe Wright (Atonement), about battling homelessness and mental illness, is a bit of both.

Robert Downey Jr. is Steve Lopez, the L.A. Times writer whose columns inspired the script by Susannah Grant (In Her Shoes). He meets homeless Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) by chance on the street, playing a two-stringed violin under a statue of Beethoven. When Nathaniel casually mentions his studies at Juilliard, Steve is intrigued enough to dig up his background for a column.

One turns into a series, as readers respond with outpourings of sympathy and musical instruments, and Steve works to get Nathaniel off the chaotic streets of Skid Row and into housing and treatment for his schizophrenia. In this area, Grant wins points for trying to keep things real. She loses some in a contrived subplot involving Steve's ex-wife and his commitment issues.

Downey's sardonic quality is perfect for his part, and for most of the film it keeps the overwrought sentiment in check. The strongest scenes are unquestionably between him and Foxx, who offers another strong, immersive performance.

Like Steve, the filmmakers must walk a line between advocating for their homeless subjects and exploiting them. Their intentions are noble but ultimately they stumble a few times, like in the final shots, inducing a cringe instead of a smile.