John Nash goes through life making connections, but not with other people. He sees meaningful patterns where the rest of us see only unintelligible randomness. Ideas are as real as people to him. Maybe more so. Eventually the ideas become too real — or the people not real enough — and Nash withdraws inexorably into the tangles of his own incandescent mind.
There are any number of ways a movie like this can go wrong, but director Ron Howard skillfully avoids them all, aided by compelling performances from Russell Crowe (Gladiator) and Jennifer Connelly (Requiem for a Dream). Partly based on Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 biography of the brilliant but schizophrenic mathemetician John Forbes Nash Jr — who is still alive and teaching at his alma mater, Princeton University — A Beautiful Mind is engrossing, heartbreaking, and ultimately redemptive without being oversimplistic.
Individuals who are both gifted and disturbed are often made by the movies into holy innocents, poor defenseless saints victimized by unscrupulous ordinary people (cf. Shine, Rain Man, etc.). Not here. John Nash (Crowe), almost refreshingly, is a jerk. Smug and arrogant as a graduate student at Princeton, he regularly blows off all his classes, declaring that they “dull your mind, destroy the potential for true creativity.” Even when he loses a board game to another student, he can only stammer a self-vindication: “You should not have won. I had the first move. My play was perfect. The game is flawed.”
The story of an arrogant jerk, though, can be alienating and unaffecting. What keeps us caring here is Alicia Larde (Connelly), a lovely student who knows how to talk to John, and winds up marrying him. Alicia, who suffers with John through his dark night of the mind, could have been a mere assemblage of virtuous stereotypes; but instead she emerges as a mature, sensible, intelligent individual. Because she cares about her husband — and because he, even in the midst of his delusions, cares about her — what happens to him matters to us. Alicia provides the audience’s emotional anchor in the story; she also turns out to be John’s emotional anchor to reality.
Before meeting Alicia, Nash cares about only one thing: coming up with a truly original idea. We see his early struggle, and ultimately his success at the age of 21, though the nature of Nash’s revolutionary idea (which would ultimately win him a 1994 Nobel Prize for economics) is barely touched upon. (The movie whimsically depicts Nash coming up with his breakthrough approach to non-cooperative game theory while chatting with friends at a bar about strategies for picking up girls; the summary he actually gives is about on the level of the description of chaos theory we get from Jeff Goldblum holding Laura Dern’s hand in Jurassic Park.)
But that hardly matters. A Beautiful Mind is not about ideas per se, but about the experience of living in a world defined by ideas. Howard has good ideas about bringing his protagonist’s inner world to life: Numbers and words literally jump off the page at Nash as he makes connections, and the fitted-glass windows of Princeton’s ivy-covered halls become Nash’s extended blackboards, filled with closely scribbled white characters as he writes as it were in the air.
But it’s the depiction of the extent of Nash’s delusions that represents the film’s real master-stroke. With startling boldness A Beautiful Mind draws the audience in to Nash’s world — then yanks the rug from under our feet. It’s a frightening moment; and the frightfulness of Nash’s condition never really goes away. First there’s the horror of institutionalization and radical drug therapy, then the numbness of daily medication that leaves Nash intellectually and physically impotent. For a time it seems his only alternatives are life with schizophrenia or mere existence deprived of the things that make life worth living. Eventually, he learns that his condition can be managed, though he may never be cured.
All of this is of course a nightmare for Alicia as well, but she chooses to continue to love her husband in spite of what has happened to him. “I look at him,” she tells someone else, “and I force myself to see the man I married. And he becomes someone I love; and I become someone who loves him. It’s not all the time… but it’s enough.” In this simple declaration is more wisdom and virtue than in many another film. Decades later, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the aging Nash credits Alicia as the reason he’s been able to go on: “You are all my reasons.”
As might be expected, Howard’s film oversimplifies several aspects of the real Nash’s life — though not nearly as much as many false allegations against Nash and the film’s accuracy would suggest. For example, charges of antisemitism, adultery, and even experimentation with homosexuality have all been roundly denounced by Nash himself, by his wife, and by his biographer, Sylvia Nasar.
Another charge, that in contrast to the solidly committed if highly strained marriage depicted in the film, the Nashes were actually divorced decades ago, is also misleading. Alicia did divorce John in the 1960s — but then a few years later took him back, and they lived together for almost 40 years before recently remarrying. Perhaps the film’s portrait of the redemptive and enduring love betwen these two people isn’t untrue to life, even if it has been smoothed over somewhat.
Russell Crowe is outstanding in a role that will easily win him a third straight best-actor Oscar nomination; it’s a pity he won last year for Gladiator, since it means he probably won’t win this year, even though this is a stronger performance in a stronger film. (Last year probably should have gone to Tom Hanks for Cast Away.)
In the hands of a lesser actor, Nash could have been all tics and eccentric behavior, but Crowe distills a character from the emotions: the arrogance and awkwardness, the burning ambition, the fearful paranoia, the sad determination. He may not give us much insight into what makes his character tick — perhaps that’s something no one can know — but Crowe does create an indelible impression of it would have been like to know the man.
Jennifer Connelly, who provides the movie’s heart, is equally dazzling. If Crowe submerges himself into the opacity of his character, Connelly plays hers with utter transparency. She hardly seems to be acting at all. Ed Harris (Pollock) and Paul Bettany (A Knight’s Tale’s Chaucer) provide sturdy support as, respectively, a mysterious
Ron Howard directs solidly, turning in his best work since Apollo 13 in what is his most mature film to date. He seems an entirely different director from the man who only last year gave us the soulless Grinch. Give this man more serious human drama, and keep him away from the fantasy. I’d like to see more films cut from the cloth of A Beautiful Mind.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.