A Beautiful Mind
review by KJ Doughton, 28 December 2001

A Beautiful Mind is the kind of dignified, do-gooder melodrama that seems tailor-made for Oscars. Often involving an unlikely hero overcoming adversity, this feel-good blueprint shows up in the multiplexes each December, often "based on a true story" and adapted for the screen just in time for Academy Award consideration. Awakenings, Shine, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and The Hurricane are but four examples of this well-intended hybrid of filmmaking, stamped noble with a capital "N."

However, it would appear that the Academy is tiring of such inspirational stories, or at least scrutinizing their accuracy. Most recently, The Hurricane was snubbed for a Best Picture nomination, while Denzel Washington’s brilliant performance was robbed of an Oscar during charges that the film played too fast and loose with the factual story that inspired it. Meanwhile, A Beautiful Mind is already dodging similar criticism, as it spins the semi-true account of mathematical genius John Forbes Nash Jr., whose theories on economics saw him graduate from Princeton and eventually win a Nobel Prize in 1994.

Ron Howard’s cinematic glimpse at Nash’s life and achievements provides viewers with next to no insight concerning what made his theories so groundbreaking and unique. Like Good Will Hunting, Howard’s movie gives us several scenes of its hero feverishly scrawling formulas onto blackboards to establish his genius. Perhaps the director felt that such fodder would be yawn-inducing, and go over the heads of your average American Pie-loving flunky. He’s probably right, but it’s still a shame that Howard doesn’t attempt to educate us to Nash’s intellectual contributions.

Instead, he takes an easier, more dramatic angle by focusing on the mental illness that Nash battled throughout most of his adult life. Fortunately, he handles this approach so well, that A Beautiful Mind wins brownie points on an entirely different playing field. It might not tell us anything about the importance of "game theory," but it brings the much-feared and misunderstood world of schizophrenia into wide release on the big screen. This devastating disease merits the attention, and the fact that A Beautiful Mind treats the condition with empathy, respect, and a convincing degree of realism is a welcome bonus.

A Beautiful Mind begins on the campus of Princeton, in the fall of 1947. Nash is introduced as a cocky, obsessive student who wears his arrogance like a badge of honor. Approaching a fellow math prodigy on the school’s courtyard, he initially flatters the peer by telling him, "I’ve read your two papers." Nash then goes on to extinguish any fraternal good will by concluding, "I am supremely confident that there’s not one innovative idea in either one of them."

Nash knows that his social skills stink, resulting in some witty, scathing one-liners. "I have a chip on both shoulders," he proclaims early on. "People say I was born with two helpings of brain and one-half helping of heart." Indeed, he’d rather spend leisure time "extracting an algorithm to define the movement of pigeons" than go drinking with Charles, his often-sloshed roommate. "You have no respect for cognitive reverie," he says when the party animal interferes with his studies.

Eventually, Nash graduates and takes on a teaching gig on the MIT Campus of Wheeler Defense Laboratories. Per usual, his ability to decipher complex story problems far exceeds his bedside manner. When a student requests that he open a window and allow fresh air into the classroom, despite the irritating rumble of a jackhammer sounding off in the distance, Nash balks. "Your comfort comes second to my ability to hear my own voice," he proclaims from the front of the class.

Nash’s blend of lone wolf personality and brilliant mathematician is an appealing combination to William Parcher (Ed Harris), a shady recruit from the Department of Defense. "There are certain endeavors in which your lack of personal connections would be an advantage," suggests Parcher as he persuades Nash to moonlight as a code-breaker for the government.

Meanwhile, an assertive student named Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) succeeds in breaking through her instructor’s pathetic dating abilities. "Give me a moment to redefine my girlish notions of romance," she requests, as John’s stab at courtship takes on all the warmth of a statistics lecture. Later, they observe the clear night sky, using star-gazing as a means of meshing their love of both aesthetic beauty and scientific possibilities. It’s a striking metaphor.

The two are brought together in marriage. All would seem to be perfect, until the October of 1954, when John suffers a harrowing psychotic break. To explain how Howard stages Nash’s startling decomposition would be to spoil A Beautiful Mind’s central twist. Without revealing too much, suffice it to say that the viewer is forced to question all that has gone before. It’s an effective revelation that brings to mind The Sixth Sense.

The resistive Nash is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he endures thorazine injections, restraints, and electroconvulsive shocks. He’s labeled a paranoid schizophrenic, then sent home to pick up the pieces with Alicia and the couple’s new baby. It’s at this point that A Beautiful Mind hits its stride with some truly ambitious strokes. Crowe is one of a select few actors who can dramatically change his appearance as the story demands, and this time around, he must morph from an ambitious, buttoned-down snob to a haggard, bewildered chain-smoker. All the trademark details of schizophrenic appearance and behavior are there: the endless cigarettes, the dark, hollowed eyes, the stubborn, unyielding delusions and conversations with intrusive, internal voices. While most cases of this mental illness aren’t characterized by the visual hallucinations that the movie suggests were common to Nash, the general torment that Crowe suggests is dead-on accurate.

A Beautiful Mind also depicts the impact of Nash’s illness on his dedicated wife. The sexual dysfunction that results from psychotropic medications is made clear, as is the anger that surfaces in even the most devout caregivers when a loved one becomes virtually unrecognizable. "I feel guilt, obligation, and rage," Alicia confesses to a psychologist. "Rage against John and against God. I force myself to see the man that I married."

Meanwhile, Nash copes with his illness using a newfound sense of humor. "Did you meet Harvey?" he asks of an old classmate stopping by for a visit, before chuckling at the friend’s uncomfortable response. "Relax. There’s no sense in being nuts if you can’t have a little fun." Such remarks reveal that perhaps the old iceberg of the past is warming up to his fellow man, appreciating the very people he’d arrogantly written off during college.

A Beautiful Mind concludes with a predictable but nonetheless moving redemption. The wrap-up requires Crowe to age and take on the contented manner of a self-actualized man who has learned to see outside of himself. The actor pulls this off effortlessly, escorting us across the arc of a truly compelling life story. Connelly, who started out in trivial teen fare like Career Opportunities and The Rocketeer, has recently ventured into far darker waters such as last year’s devastating horror show, Requiem for a Dream. She plumbs similar depths of complexity here, as a woman who patiently maintains a steady course even as frustration pulsates through her veins.

"I smell another Oscar for Crowe," predicted an impressed audience member as A Beautiful Mind’s final credits rolled. The man who donned armor and brandished weapons to portray a Gladiator has brought another hero to the screen, using only his expressive countenance and body as props. Whatever the final verdict is on A Beautiful Mind’s faithfulness to the story which inspired it, Crowe’s performance will weather the storm. It’s the real deal.

Directed by:
Ron Howard

Russell Crowe
Jennifer Connelly
Ed Harris
Christopher Plummer
Ed Harris

Written by:
Akiva Goldsman

NR- Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.






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