A Beautiful Mind is a simpleminded movie that reduces the complex, prickly life of a troubled, real-life mathematician into easily digestible mythology. That mythology — a phoenix rising from the ashes to a standing ovation — became a Hollywood favorite in the last decade, when overcoming adversity evolved into a national pastime. It’s a cheap, pandering tactic, but one whose narrative power is impossible to deny.
According to this film, John Forbes Nash Jr. wanted nothing more than to be an original thinker, and he commenced his stellar career as a Princeton graduate student. He was also a schizophrenic, a condition long undiagnosed because his mania appeared to be single-minded dedication and his paranoia seemed appropriate to someone working in a Defense Department think tank during the height of the Cold War.
What director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (adapting Sylvia Nasar’s dense, detailed biography but leaving out the naughty bits about an illegitimate child and homosexual liaisons) do in A Beautiful Mind is inexorably link these two aspects of Nash. His genius and his madness — to use two poetic and utterly unscientific terms — flowed together so naturally that they were inseparable. Which means Nash’s delusions were as real to him as the mathematical theorems he was creating. (He was also well known for refuting widely held beliefs with startling new insights.)
To this end, the life they build up for John Nash seems solid, but is actually a bizarre kind of ghost story. Haunted by the seemingly real manifestations of his mind, Nash is put on an internalized form of the hero’s quest, slaying his many dragons and trying to reach the princess (his saintly wife Alicia) who will lead him back to the ivory tower.
Who could carry this off better than Russell Crowe? Here’s an actor so good that you never catch him performing, so skilled that he allows us to actually see John Nash thinking. Crowe is able to transport himself into a role so thoroughly that his larger-than-life Aussie roughneck persona is utterly submerged to the demands of his character, in this case a geek with a massive chip on each shoulder.
A Beautiful Mind portrays Nash as an outsider to the tony Ivy League, quick-witted and condescending to those who don’t recognize his genius (with a West Virginia twang softening his pointed barbs). He’s a man whose high opinion of himself manifests itself in very ornate fantasies where he’s America’s reluctant savior, rooting out a menace embedded in the very fabric of our lives. He’s the ultimate Walter Mitty, with paranoia fueling his fire, and this type of story demands that he must be torn down in order to be built back up.
Crowe is never better than when he’s been humbled, and his finest work comes when Nash stops taking his mind-numbing medications and begins to use his powerful will to keep his illness at bay. Nash often doesn’t succeed, but as the decades pass, he becomes a shuffling fixture on the Princeton campus. Slowly he integrates into the real world (or at least academia), and finally, after he’s acquired sufficient humor and humility, Nash receives the Nobel Prize, nearly 50 years after his initial groundbreaking work.
Even though A Beautiful Mind is very much Nash’s (and Crowe’s) movie, it contains a breakthrough performance from Jennifer Connelly, who takes the role of the supportive wife to new realms of emotional veracity. Connelly is too often cast as the icy and elusive beauty, and not given much more to do. But in Inventing the Abbotts, Waking the Dead and Requiem for a Dream, she shattered that facade and revealed the tough, fiery, conflicted, vulnerable women beneath the images men create for them. She’s phenomenal here precisely because she refuses to let Alicia be underestimated or conveniently pigeonholed.
A Beautiful Mind reveals only glimpses of the dark story beneath its sunny imagery, but the performances carry enough weight for it to stand for something, even if it never adds up to a full-bodied portrait of a man who saw mathematics as not just an art form, but a method for understanding the underlying infrastructure of our chaotic world.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].