|A Beautiful Mind
Movie makers have been attracted to stories of people with mental
illness almost since the beginning of the film industry. Such roles allow
actors to really demonstrate their abilities, sometimes resulting in a
redefinition of their careers (e.g., Sally Field in "Sybil"), sometimes earning
them Oscars (i.e., Joanne Woodward in Three Faces of Eve). Both of those
examples happened to be of the "based on a true story" variety (as opposed
to something like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and such is the case with
A Beautiful Mind, the affecting drama director Ron Howard and screenwriter
Akiva Goldsman fashioned from Sylvia Nasar's best-selling biography of
mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr.
Like any film, certain liberties have been taken and the on screen results
are more of a fictionalization of Nash's story than factual recounting. There are
numerous instances where Goldsman has either omitted things (like Nash's
bisexuality, the existence of an out-of-wedlock child and his son's bouts with
mental illness), altered facts (Nash believed he was being contacted by aliens
a part of his paranoia, he and his wife Alicia were divorced for many years) or
glossed over details (his breakthrough thesis is never really explained).
Obviously, if one wants to learn more about John Forbes Nash, one should
pick up Nasar's book.
Given that such changes were made, what has been committed of
to celluloid remains an engrossing and rare drama, one that satisfactorily
brings to life the interior life of an intelligent, complex man. Howard and
Goldsman have taken great pains to provide cinematic equivalents for
Nash's delusions yet they are done so effortlessly that it is only in
retrospect that one can truly appreciate their achievements. In lesser
hands, the tricky devices that are employed may not have worked. Prone
sometimes to piling on the sentiment, Howard is to be particularly
commended for the restraint he exhibits in handling this material. (The
only quibble is the overbearing musical score by James Horner.)
It doesn't hurt Howard's cause that he hired two of the best
actors working today to play the leads: Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly.
Ever since he burst on the scene in Australian films Crowe has
demonstrated the ability to complete submerse himself in the character.
American audiences wisely took note after his galvanizing turn as tough
cop Bud White in L.A. Confidential followed by his brilliant work in
The Insider and his Oscar winning turn in Gladiator. As Nash, he uses
his entire body to depict the social awkwardness of the man. Thanks
to makeup and his innate capabilities, the actor is entirely believable
essaying the mathematician at all stages, whether a graduate student
at Princeton in the 1940s or a Nobel winner in the 1990s. This has to rank
as one of the actor's best performances.
Matching him in intensity and skill is Connelly, who until recently
(in films like Requiem for a Dream) was more or less dismissed as just
another pretty face. Granted, she is an extraordinarily gorgeous woman,
but she also has been honing her skills and under Howard's direction
and playing off Crowe, she emerges as one of America's finest character
actresses. Just as Marcia Gay Harden did in Pollock, Connelly gets
to portray an intelligent and talented female whose love for her
troubled husband forces her to make tough decisions. What the script
doesn't spell out, Connelly fills in.
The film opens with Nash's arrival as a graduate student at Princeton
in 1947. Socially inept in the way that some very intelligent people are,
Nash doesn't make friends easily because of his tendency to state bluntly
what's on his mind coupled with his somewhat misanthropic nature. ("I
don't like people much," he says at one point.) An indifferent student,
Nash spends most of his time attempting to prove his brilliance by
positing a new theory, much to the consternation of his teachers and the
enjoyment of his nemesis, a haughty fellow named Hansen (Josh Lucas).
When he finally does hit on his breakthrough -- involving game theory --
it's presented as a "eureka!" moment formed out of calculating how
to get a date rather than as a result of dedication and deliberation.
(This is one of those liberties the filmmakers have taken).
His ideas are revolutionary and with his reputation secured, Nash
goes to work at Wheeler Labs in Massachusetts. Not long after, he meets
Alicia (Connelly) and it isn't long before they've left behind the
teacher-student aspect of their lives and embarked on a relationship.
Then, Nash receives orders to work on a top secret project for the
government, ferreting out codes that appear in newspapers and
magazines. Before long, his spy work begins to take its toll, with his
co-workers (played by Adam Goldberg and Anthony Rapp) and Alicia
noticing the changes in his demeanor.
Indeed, with the assistance of Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer),
Nash is diagnosed as schizophrenic and undergoes insulin therapy and
shock treatments. Drugged up on medication, his paranoia is controlled,
but he can't function as a theorist or more importantly as a husband.
(One of the side effects of his medication is impotence.) Frustrated, he
surreptitiously stops taking his pills until the delusions return, sparking
a crisis in his marriage. It's at this point that Nash decides to put
his mind to work and treat his illness as problem to be solved.
I don't want to say too much more because there are twists in
the film that Howard handles well (with a debt to M. Night Shyamalan).
Because the film concentrates on Nash and his point of view, some of
the supporting roles are not as well-defined as possible, but the actors
embodying them cannot be faulted. Paul Bettany, Adam Goldberg,
Anthony Rapp, Christopher Plummer and Josh Lucas all do nice work.
Only Ed Harris as a mysterious government agent is underused, and
that is more a result of the character's function in the screenplay.
A Beautiful Mind is a well-crafted film (Roger Deakins' cinematography,
Wynn Thomas' production design and Rita Ryack's costumes are worthy of
note) that may hearken back to the sort of biopics made by the studios in
the 1940s and 50s. It isn't exactly a true story, but as told in a sharp
manner with integrity, this version of the life of John Forbes Nash proves
entertaining and even inspirational.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 125 mins.
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.