Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, Paul Bettany, Adam Goldberg, Josh Lucas, Vivien Cardone, Judd Hirsch
MPAA Rating: (for intense thematic material, sexual content and a scene of violence)
Running Time: 2:15
Release Date: 12/21/01
Review by Mark Dujsik
One of the more elegant aspects of A Beautiful Mind is the number of levels on which the film just simply and splendidly works. Here’s a Hollywood film that doesn’t compromise—doesn’t play it safe. It plays as a biopic, a sweet romance, a great character study, a paranoid thriller, a domestic drama, and a harrowing examination of schizophrenia without ever missing a step or falling into the constraints of these genres. Director Ron Howard balances each of the film’s elements, making sure none of them seem out of place, and somehow turns the narrative into an instrument of insight. In just over two hours, Howard covers about forty years and gives the sense of a whole life passing by. It’s an honest film but still respectful of its subject; it does not make him an unqualified hero or unnecessarily condemn him. Through it all, an actor named Russell Crowe holds most of the weight of the film on his shoulders and gives the best performance of his so far short but astounding career.
Based on the book by Sylvia Nasar, the film is "inspired by" the life of John Nash, a brilliant mathematician who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994 for a theory he developed much earlier in his life. The film begins with his career in Princeton graduate school, where he struggles to find an original idea. He looks for it everywhere, whether it be in a flock of pigeons or the design of an extraordinarily bad tie. He keeps to himself for the most part—an intensely unsociable man—and only occasionally finds himself interacting with people. He doesn’t like them, and they don’t much like him either. He eventually finds his theory and is rewarded a job with an important defense company, where he eventually works for high-class government operations. He is approached by a mysterious man named William Parcher (Ed Harris), who offers Nash a job working on a top secret mission to find hidden code in select periodicals. While doing this work, he teaches at MIT and meets a student named Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). The two begin dating, and despite his lack of social skills, their relationship grows and soon they marry.
Nash’s job becomes increasingly dangerous, and he begins suffering severe paranoia. Soon enough the film makes a major revelation: Nash is schizophrenic. Exactly how much of what has gone before is real and how much is the product of Nash’s delusions? The structure of the story is ingenious in the way that it manages to keep the audience as much in the dark as Nash. We begin questioning events and people, and in a way, the story gives us a small sense of his disorder. The rest of the movie is spent observing the ways in which Nash copes with his illness. There are intense scenes presented, such as one where Nash tries to remove an implant he believes to be planted in his arm. Playing along with this is a look at primitive psychotherapy techniques. Nash is strapped to a bed and undergoes insulin shock therapy five times a week for two months. The film may not be a completely accurate depiction of schizophrenia, but it is disturbing enough to make a powerful impact.
The rest of the film plays like a standard biopic, giving the more important events in Nash’s life. Math is an important element to the story, but it is sensibly about Nash’s abilities instead of the process itself. The scenes in which we see him doing math are fascinating. In these scenes, we get an idea of his perspective—seeing the world in numbers and theories. The film uses subtle special effects to illuminate this aspect. There’s a scene where numbers pop out in different sequences during a code breaking and another where Nash connects the stars to make designs for Alicia. Once the film moves on to his disease, obvious liberties are taken with the real story. I admit that I do not know how real events occurred, but a decent section of the story is a figment of Nash’s mind. However, the script by Akiva Goldsman does not dwell on being painfully accurate, and in return, we get a respectfully honest sense of a full life progressing.
Russell Crowe is an actor mostly known for his fierce intensity, an attribute clearly on display in his performances in L.A. Confidential, Gladiator, and, to some extent, The Insider. He sheds that quality here and gives a performance of powerful subtlety. He’s given a difficult task here, as some actors would take the role as a series of tics, but Crowe develops Nash from the inside out. He plays Nash with a blunt frankness. This is the kind of man we fear would scold us if we said the slightest thing wrong in his presence. Crowe not only conquers the task, he adds a strange level of charm to the part. As a result, Nash comes across as a compelling and sympathetic character. It’s simply an incredible, richly developed performance. Connelly is equally strong as his equilibrium. She also manages to develop her own character, even though she easily could have been overpowered by Crowe. The combination of these two indelible performances leads to the portrayal of a timeworn relationship.
A Beautiful Mind is a grand Hollywood drama, the kind that is all too rarely made today. It’s a complexly human film telling an utterly human story that doesn’t settle for the middle ground and bias of manipulation. At its heart is the story of one man overcoming adversity (both of a prejudiced and judgmental world and of his own making) to find the proper balance between his own genius and handicap—both of which lie within one horrible affliction. It’s the kind of paradox that cannot be reasoned through but, as John Nash came to learn, must be thoroughly lived. And now at the age of 73, he still does.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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