A Beautiful Mind

| January 16, 2002

It’s really too bad that Russell Crowe won his Oscar for the overrated Gladiator, because he has done far better work in far better movies (L.A. Confidential, The Insider), and in A Beautiful Mind, he almost singlehandedly elevates Ron Howard’s very good film into the realm of greatness.
Inhabiting Nobel Prize winning mathematician — and schizophrenic –John Nash as few actors would be able to, Crowe adds another stellar performance to his list of acting triumphs. As a young man studying at Princeton, Nash is obsessed with coming up with a truly original idea, and dismisses his peers’ slight contributions to theory as condescendingly as they mock his social skills. Nash is burdened with a stubborn, introverted personality and is so driven to succeed, and so infatuated with the beauty and mystery of numbers and theory, that he barely has time for friends. Except, that is, for his effervescent roommate, who, as portrayed by Paul Bettany, gives Nash an outlet for his more identifiable qualities of loneliness, desire for acceptance and eccentric (to say the least) affability.
Rather than give the public a fully realized character, flaws and all, Howard and scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman (with many misfires under his belt), tone down the real-life Nash’s seamier characteristics, which include traces of homosexuality and sexual dysfunction, in favor of a typically Opiefied feel good journey of self-discovery and redemption through love and faith. Blah blah blah. The real meat here is Nash’s deterioration into madness, with swings on a clever yet simultaneously cheap revelation about halfway through the film, when we learn that not all is as it seems. It’s a stunning way to evoke the difficulty of life with mental illness and the disorientation of not being able to trust one’s own mind, but at the same time it feels like the rug is being pulled out from under us, when we had almost no indication that there was ever a rug there at all.
After Nash leaves Princeton, and we get a streamlined, dumbed-down explanation of his groundbreaking contribution to game theory (thank God it was dumbed-down though, otherwise I’d have had no clue), the movie shifts to MIT, where Nash works as a sometime professor and full-time code-breaker for the government. Ed Harris steps in, as he often does for Ron Howard, to provide some keen support as the film’s black hat, the government agent who forces Nash to search for hidden messages in common periodicals.
In the midst of his clandestine work, Jennifer Connelly shows up as one of his students, and the two begin a well-played, unconventional relationship in which she must guide Mr. Crowe’s oddball character through the rigors of the courting process. Tact is not exactly his middle name, and Crowe does a wonderful job of projecting Nash’s uneasiness and insecurity as well as his intelligence and passion, for both numbers and his soon-to-be wife. Connelly’s character becomes Nash’s emotional anchor, especially as the film progresses and his mental illness takes hold of him. She is a stunningly gorgeous woman and an under-appreciated actress, and she perfectly captures her character’s fear of Nash’s instability while making it clear that she is brave enough, and her love is strong enough, to help her husband weather the storm of schizophrenia, which never quite dissipates, only calms.
By the end of the film, Nash has gotten the recognition he deserves for his ideas, and he has, if not conquered his demons, at least learned to live with them and function capably. Howard does an admirable job through most of the movie of maintaining the edge of the difficult subject matter even with the liberties he took with the story. But, without spoiling the film’s central twists, his touch at times reverts to the sentimental, both at the film’s conventional finale and throughout the body in some of its representations of Nash’s disease. It’s the acting that makes the movie work. Russell Crowe excels in portraying the brilliant, extremely troubled man, completely transforming himself into a representation of Nash’s cowed, broken shell of a body, and his twisted, kaleidoscoped view of reality, and he is assured an Oscar nomination. Jennifer Connelly is finally getting some of the recognition she deserves after her stellar performance in Requiem for a Dream, and she keeps on going with her portrayal of Nash’s tough, loving and devoted wife.
The story isn’t all true and much of the film is, as mentioned, Opiefied, but Howard does manage to present a compelling depiction of mental illness, and he finally leaves some edge on a film that probably could have used a bit more. Perhaps Howard will get past his devotion to vanilla schmaltz and start to use some of the directorial talents he displays here to create something a bit more consistent and thematically honest.

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