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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

A Beautiful Mind (review)

Beautifully Bland

So whaddaya know? Ron Howard and Russell Crowe rode the short bus all to the way to the Oscars by playing the “we made a sensitive film about the mentally ill” card. Which is complete crap, of course. A Beautiful Mind is pure made- for- Hollywood pap about the mentally ill in which schizophrenia is treated by Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman the way doctors used to treat it in the bad old days before we (some of us, anyway) were enlightened about diseases of the brain: Hey, snap out of it! Get over it! It’s all in your head! If Howard had made A Beautiful Liver, about someone who cures his cancer through sheer willpower, or A Beautiful Leg, about someone who mends his broken limb by merely wishing hard enough, he would have been laughed out of the Oscars. But Jennifer Connelly needs to believe that something extraordinary is possible, and because this is Hollywood, it is: this manipulative, phony film wins four Oscars. Where were the beautiful minds among the Academy?
I’ve searched high and low through multiple viewings of A Beautiful Mind, trying to find something redeeming, something that makes this film worthy of such accolades, and I still can’t find it. Mostly it induces cringes. I’ve never understood the extreme tolerance of Connelly’s Alicia to the bluntly boorish behavior of Crowe’s John Nash, with no justification that we can see, particularly early in their relationship, when most sane people would give up. Is she just a glutton for punishment? Sure, he looks great in a t-shirt, but come on. The relationship between the real Nash and his wife apparently bears little resemblance to what we get here — she was not the slavishly devoted spouse Goldsman wants us to think she was — and maybe that’s what prompts Connelly’s screaming fit in one particularly awful scene: she’s just frustrated by the impossibility of portraying the impossibly saintly woman she’s being asked to portray.

Though it’s just as easy to blame Howard for letting Connelly’s tantrum end up on film. He has rarely met a piece of over- the- topness he didn’t like. The action-movie glee with which Howard depicts some of Nash’s delusions don’t even make sense — how does a schizophrenic imagine himself involved in a car chase? Nash’s delusions are otherwise shown to have some believable basis in his own reality, a sort of plausible deniability — the imaginary best friend always has some excuse for not meeting Alicia, for instance — so what’s the deal with the car chase? Is Nash driving his own car alone, and if so, how does he explain to himself the next day why his windows aren’t shot out like they were in his paranoid fantasy? Is he just sitting on the ground somewhere dreaming, and if so, what does he think when he wake up to reality again? To make us understand how these kinds of delusions fit into Nash’s mindscape would be to let us in on the secret, and Goldsman and Howard aren’t interested in doing that just yet, at this point in the film. They’re more interested in fudging the boundaries between reality and delusion, in cheating the audience in order to “surprise” us later than they are in giving us any real insight into Nash’s illness or Nash’s character. Tricksy filmmakers — we hates them.

The best line — though unintentionally so — in the film comes early on, when Nash talks of a former teacher of his who described him as having been “born with two helpings of brain but only half a helping of heart.” Just like Howard’s Grinch! What a spoilsport Nash is to all the Whos of Princeton, stealing their thunder and winning a Nobel Prize, all while having a heart two sizes too small. Ah, but he has a beautiful mind. I’m not quite sure what that means, but it sounds nice, doesn’t it? Like nice, smooth, bland pap.

Best Picture 2001
unforgettable movie moment:
Nash tosses 150 years of economic theory out the window with his new strategy for getting all his posse laid.

previous review:
“Delusions of Grandeur,” 12.21.01

previous Best Picture:
2000: Gladiator
next Best Picture:
2002: Chicago


MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense thematic material, sexual content and a scene of violence

viewed at home on a small screen

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