A Beautiful Mind (review)

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Delusions of Grandeur

It’s a Ron Howard movie, right, and it’s about mental illness, so I was expecting the usual Hollywood claptrap about people who ain’t right in the head teaching us normals the True Meaning of Life (see K-Pax) — it’s called A Beautiful Mind, after all, like Russell Crowe as the crazy math guy is more in tune with the divine or something because his wiring is shorting out.

Only, it’s worse, with only one slightly mitigating factor that makes the movie worth watching. Toss a coin: Which do you prefer: A Heartwarming(TM) tale of one man’s triumph over mental illness? Or one director’s biting off more than he can chew and falling rather flat on his face? Or one more mostly terrific performance from Crowe? No need to look for a three-sided coin — you get all three in A Beautiful Mind.

John Nash revolutionized economics with his postwar theory of how to pick up girls, developed when he was a doctoral candidate at the math department at Princeton University. You think I’m kidding, but wait till you see how Howard (and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman) depict his theoretical breakthrough — it may have even happened that way in real life, but even if it didn’t, it actually demonstrates very nicely how creative people think out of the box.

The thing is, though, Nash — who won a Nobel Prize for the thing about how to pick up girls and still teaches at Princeton today — is schizophrenic, and was probably already in the early stages of the disease when he arrived at Princeton as a young man. Certainly, as Crowe (Proof of Life, Gladiator) portrays him early in the film, he’s all twitches and averted eyes, almost shamefully showy for an actor whose quiet inner intensity informed his previous work. Where was Howard (Apollo 13, Ransom) in this? We’ll get to that in a minute. But clearly, Crowe either needs a stronger-willed director than Howard to dampen down his enthusiasm a tad, or Howard needs to figure out in which takes his actor is just experimenting with character… and not use those takes. Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just embarrassing.

So, after Nash develops his theory, which impresses the hell out of everyone, he goes to work at Wheeler Defense Labs at MIT, from which he catches the eye of the Pentagon, who brings him in to do a little codebreaking. By now, the Cold War has really ramped up, and the Red Scare has already taken Jim Carrey as a victim in The Majestic. A mysterious DOD MIB, William Parcher (Ed Harris: The Truman Show, Enemy at the Gates, in a fedora), enlists Nash for even more secret work, something about a “suitcase nuke” and “sleeper cells” who communicate through coded messages in newspapers and magazines. Soon his wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly: Requiem for a Dream, Waking the Dead) — who puts up with his complete lack of social graces because, well, he’s Russell Crowe, and also because she’s brilliant and beautiful and noble, as required by the Code of Hollywood — notices that something isn’t quite right with her husband. The diagnosis: looney toons.

I don’t mean to make fun of the mentally ill, and I don’t need to, because A Beautiful Mind does it for us. For every horrible scene of the awful treatment Nash undergoes and every uncomfortable bit of Crowe — now back to his usual concentrated fury — dealing with medications with bad side effects and relapses and so on, there’s some schoolyard humor lobbed at the strange behavior his disease causes. It’s one thing for the character of Nash to poke a little self-deprecating fun at himself, which he does a couple of times. It’s quite another for the director of what supposed to be a sympathetic story about a real person to play his differentness for laughs.

But that’s a minor quibble. My major quibble with Howard’s direction is that the script gets us so inside Nash’s head that it makes us a party to his illness and the paranoia that it spawns… but Howard doesn’t know how to show us this without, ultimately, making us feel cheated and jerked around. Withholding information from the audience is fine, and can work… in the hands of a director whose tricks for depicting the crazy mixed-up world of John Nash extends beyond whirling the camera around his actor at every opportunity.

So was Howard too busy trying to figure out how and when to whirl the camera to keep a weather eye on Crowe? Maybe. At least Crowe does, finally, make A Beautiful Mind worth seeing. But only just… and maybe only for Crowe fans.

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