A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard)

It actually takes work to make a movie about the life story of John Nash — the mathematician and game theorist whose struggles with schizophrenia derailed his life for at least a decade — and not come up with something interesting. Spinning it all into sentimental claptrap, that takes Ron Howard, whose task in A Beautiful Mind with the dubious aid of writer Akiva Goldsman is to box a complicated history into all-too-conventional Hollywood biopic structure, which of course circumvents whatever narrative momentum this might gather. The nature of the genre isn’t the fault of Howard or Goldsman, but what a pity to watch the wheels come off this after it establishes Nash as a character and even gets us inside his head a little bit, detailing his thought processes before mental illness starts to hijack them. Our introduction to Nash alone and the way his personage and relationship to others develop in the early scenes are enough to characterize this as one of Howard’s more skillfully made films.

However, once Mr. Nash’s visual and auditory hallucinations start (in reality, they were only auditory), things get muddied up, and by an hour in we seem to have thoroughly left the real world behind. As in the later Frost/Nixon, Howard relies far too much on fabrication to complement and enhance the “appeal” of a real-life story that frankly is full and complex enough without made-up shit. I’m far from the person to talk to about the finer points of mathematical theories, but I’m sympathetic to the criticism that the film’s explanations of them are dumbed down and prettied up enough that there seems scarcely any point bothering to bring them up. We skirt shamefully past the less savory matters of Nash’s personal life, like his abandonment of his first son and the boy’s mother in 1953, and the divorce of the Nashes in the midst of the film’s depicted events; that’s crossed out in favor of a line of stand-by-your-man bullshit on the part of Alicia Nash, so that Howard can wring an Inspirational Tale from all this. But “Inspirational Tale” is the last thing Nash’s bio really has to offer us — it’s interesting specifically because it’s an anomaly, not because it’s universal — and a hard-line examination of how Nash’s sickness and insular manner affected his ability to maintain relationships would have been vastly, vastly preferable to the portrayal of a John Hughes innocent aloof who doesn’t even know how to ask women out, much less seduce and abandon them. To even consider the far more fascinating and multifaceted film that the source text could’ve inspired is disgusting.

That’s before we even get to the sticky-sweet nonsense that covers up the whole last half hour, seemingly out of nowhere. Nash has been through the wringer, he’s had gun-toting confrontations with fictitious government agents, he’s destroyed his own life and others’, he’s created squirmingly uncomfortable scenes on the grounds of his workplace at MIT, he’s carried on a nonexistent parallel life as a Pentagon operative with meaninglessly menial tasks, he’s bid farewell to the imaginary friends to whom he felt such kinship (Green Eggs and Ham a tiresome shortcut-beacon like Curious George in Forrest Gump), and now he’s ready to accept his reward for… his theories and proofs? Perish the thought! The film seems to posit that he’s receiving the Nobel Prize because he’s just lived such a danged accomplished life and he has love in his heart and you almost expect to break out into song when he gives a speech in front of everyone, something else that never happened at all. (And the story behind that is actually interesting: Nobel laureates don’t give an acceptance speech, and Nash tends not to speak in public for precisely the reasons you’d expect.) We conclude with cringeworthy on-the-nose stuff, in old age makeup, about how damn wonderful Nash’s life is and how much he loves being in love with his beautiful wife (they weren’t married at this point), and isn’t life grand, and isn’t the “mind” “beautiful.”

Still: despite dubious use of creative license, the film truly works rather well when it’s actually playful, tackling Nash’s hallucinations as though they are elements of a great thriller. It’s so intriguing to find ourselves thrown into the cloak-and-dagger stuff with the great sideline details of secret messages in magazine articles (shades of Mother Night!) and a dropoff point and even a car chase and shootout (!) that in a sense, if you didn’t see it coming you might well be pretty heartbroken that it’s just a front for the film’s actual subject and thesis. (The conviction placed behind all this stuff underlines the way that Howard’s film completely discards characters when they aren’t needed. Remember how Nash had a child? No, you don’t, unless you’re watching the scene where the baby’s nearly drowned. But it also suggests Howard’s chops sit better with plotty potboilers rather than sappy character pieces.)

Placing this side by side with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the brilliant adaptation of Chuck Barris’ flamboyantly improbable memoir, is one of the handiest primers I can remember in the problems of Awards Cinema — George Clooney has so much fun with so many of the same intriguing story points, and adds a touch of ambiguity where this big grandstanding showcase for slickness can’t leave a shadow anywhere. Howard’s determination to somehow fashion emotional crescendoes from a life of a man suffering directly from emotional difficulty is as cynical as if Orson Welles had tried to end Citizen Kane with a mother-son reunion and a series of hugs.

All that said, the two lead performances here are brilliant. Russell Crowe has certainly never been better, and the contrast of this to his brutish emptiness in Gladiator is startling; except when he’s weighted down under pounds of old-age makeup toward the finale, he retains an emotional weightiness throughout the picture that doesn’t flinch before the contradictory duplicity of his character in scene after scene. Jennifer Connelly, as Alicia Larde-Nash, is a far more accomplished actor than Crowe, but I’m not sure I’ve seen her better than this either; her behavior as she watches her husband lose his mind, as she learns to accept his limitations as a partner, are moving even if they’re all complete horseshit. But both of them are lost in the dross — as usual, Howard fails to make actual cinema of the things he tackles.

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