A Beautiful Mind

I’m mixed in my feelings about A Beautiful Mind — inspirational tales about mental illness are a thorn in my side — but I can’t deny how solidly it’s crafted, how well-acted, and, wonder of wonders, how intelligently written and directed. I’d not expected much from director Ron Howard, on whom I’d long ago given up (the last from him was his awful Grinch redux), or from scripter Akiva Goldsman, who perpetrated the last two Batman movies as well as Lost in Space. But here, and perhaps here only, they’ve made something that feels as though it matters.

Russell Crowe, of course, is the movie’s ringer. It might actually be harder to be a credible gladiator than a believably agitated mathematician, but Crowe, as the famously distressed real-life Nobel laureate Dr. John Nash, creates volumes out of minuscule tics and mannerisms. Nash is more comfortable with numbers than with people; Crowe, who has never seemed the most gregarious of actors — he’s a brooder, simmering in his own discontent — finds the pathos in Nash’s alienation. When he speaks to his peers, which isn’t often, Nash usually takes the opportunity to point out how much more advanced he is than anyone else. He’s not the most likable hero to occupy the center of a major Hollywood drama. Yet Crowe gets us on Nash’s side by physicalizing Nash’s intellectual egotism; he puts his body into each self-aggrandizing statement, making both ego and geekiness attractive.

Nash is a spiritual brother to the beleaguered hero of Darren Aronofsky’s debut Pi, another egghead driven around the bend by the mysticism of pattern. While his colleagues (including the always-entertaining Adam Goldberg and the raffish Paul Bettany from last year’s A Knight’s Tale) and his wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) look on helplessly, Nash develops ever more obsessive and destructive behaviors centered on top-secret work he’s doing for the government (Ed Harris, who could frighten a brick, is Nash’s main liaison, who slinks in and out of the movie, bringing shadows with him). Soon enough, Nash cracks, and the remainder of the movie steps in gently to treat his delusions. He has many relapses into madness, but eventually learns to live with his phantasms, and (as in real life) enjoys a late-life rally from both his peers and the Nobel committee.

That the movie sometimes seems to whisper that all a madman needs is the love of a good woman will not endear it to those who know better; nor will it endear it to non-fans of Jennifer Connelly, who remains — though tenderly directed by Howard — a luminous blank. You begin to feel that Nash gains the strength to fight his demons simply because his partner is so hot; the movie might be called A Beautiful Wife. In this and every movie, Connelly is presented as the embodiment of male desire, and no more; when Alicia presents Nash with a solution to an equation he’s given to her class, we no more believe it than we would if she handed him an operetta she’d whipped up overnight. The only one allowed to have much of a mind — beautiful, ornery, cracked, or otherwise — is Nash.

In the final half hour or so, the film slides into love-will-conquer-all cheeseville, yet it’s still mounted with such tact and professionalism that, yes, I did choke up a little at Nash’s Nobel acceptance speech, wherein he seems to share Sean Penn’s philosophy in I Am Sam that love is all you need. If the movie had followed Sylvia Nasar’s detailed biography more closely — we hear nothing of Nash’s bisexuality, though here and there it’s implied — it might’ve been a grittier story, instead of the well-mounted if ultimately sappy Hollywood production it is. Put it this way: given its basic mainstream parameters, A Beautiful Mind couldn’t have been much better than it is (at times, quite good), but it could’ve been a lot worse.

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Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, biopic, underrated

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