February 25, 2002


A Beautiful Mind

reviewed by
Jennifer Saylor













































To read more from Jennifer, please visit her pages on ArtSavant.

Hollywood loves the mentally ill. They have that colorful, heartbreaking struggle against sickness but still plenty of physical mobility and little loss of physical attractiveness.

But the Hollywood machine Hollywoodizes stories, sanitizes them and removes their complexity. Real life can be episodic and muddled, but the medium of film needs something more linear and digestible. The real John Forbes Nash was allegedly a racist, conducted numerous extramarital affairs, and was ultimately divorced by his long-suffering wife. Their son inherited his father's schizophrenia. But forget the real John Forbes Nash and the tangled nature of real life. Aside from the disingenuousness of the marketing campaign, why must A Beautiful Mind conform to the shape of reality?

If you crave a meaningful, human story, with gorgeous actors playing out a take on the tremendous power of love that somehow manages to be both mythologized and honest, forget the real John Forbes Nash (or buy Sylvia Nasar's biography of Nash, on which the screenplay is based). The movie is a romantic, sophisticated fairytale, a work of intelligent and meaningful fiction that shapes the bramble of real life into something neater and prettier. Whether this is a respectful way to treat real life is a question you must answer for yourself.

Despite his fame and sex-symbol appeal, Russell Crowe, that most nondescript of movie stars, never fails to disappear into a role. A firepluggy, slightly brutish-looking man, he manages to be a master of convincingly portraying highly intelligent characters (q.v. The Insider). He excels at characters whose wheels are always turning, their intense, convoluted thought processes nakedly apparent in his face. As Nash, his distracted, antisocial air is powerfully reminiscent of every outcast nerd you remember from high school or college. We meet Nash as a brilliant young Princeton math student with jerky mannerisms, greasy hair, a heavy West Virginia accent, and an ill-fitting suit. He swiftly builds a brilliant career on the strength of his remarkable mind, but his blossoming schizophrenia soon overtakes both his professional and personal life.

Jennifer Connelly's been around for a while, but with her role as Alicia, the woman who dares to brave Nash's madness with him, she commands a new respect. She's almost too beautiful to be believable as anything as quotidian and unromantic as a physics student, but the richness of Alicia's relationship with Nash makes you forget everything but the centrality of their connection, and the power of love and attraction. Alicia instinctively knows how to deal with Nash. When she asks him to speak his mind on a romantic picnic, he, with the social grace of a thrown screwdriver, confesses what he wants to have sex with her as soon as possible, and is only participating in societal rituals because he knows he must to get to the sex. And she smiles at him, and we see the almost childlike, endearingly graceless charm she sees in him.

Alicia's moments of fury and frustration as Nash's illness progresses dirty her halo and make her the Hollywood approximation of a suffering, conflicted woman. But their scenes together sparkle with chemistry, and even old-fashioned, almost nostalgic romance.

The movie is visually stirring, sumptuous in its depiction of burnished, tweedy, forties-Princeton glamour and the restrained romance of fifties fashion. The film spans the decades, and Connelly becomes a walking tour of tasteful women's couture from the forties to the eighties, her quiet allure adding to the movie's almost magical visual feel: the stone buildings of Princeton, the labyrinthine halls of the military complex where Nash does some cold-war code sleuthing, the white and soulless chambers of a mental hospital. Even more remarkable are director Ron Howard's unpretentious visual translations of the way a mathematical demiurge like Nash sees the world. In a war-room scene where Nash searches a wall full of numeric code for a pattern, we hear a muffled flurry of voices which seem to be chanting numbers, and then a number-pattern on the walls begins to glow, revealing itself. Thus we audio-visually experience an oversimplified yet undeniably captivating filmic metaphor for a talent none of us possess; we are sucked artfully into Nash's complex world. Not only do we see into his life, we begin to see the world as he sees it. (A friend tells me that an earlier, equally fascinating scene which visually depicts Nash's famed Equilibrium fails to explain the Equilibrium properly, mangling the concept completely. If you want correctness, read the Nasar bio.)

The ending, where Nash seems to suddenly discover feeling and sensitivity to others he's lacked all of his life, may not be for every taste. But love truly can heal and work what looks like miracles. Who's to say that isn't what happened to the real Nash? It's the magic of the film that it makes remarkable happenings seem possible through love, work, and friendship, without completely cheating us of the long struggle it can take to achieve them. Schizophrenia, and real life, are trickier than can be revealed in two hours onscreen. But for a brief explanation of the ways the bold and great-hearted may try to make miracles, one can watch and learn from a sensitive film like this.

Seeing A Beautiful Mind, I felt compelled to revisit Howard's directorial past. Sure, he's had missteps (2000's live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas), but overall his is a solidly entertaining and unpretentious body of work (Ransom, Apollo 13, Splash, Parenthood). A Beautiful Mind offers greater emotional, visual, and intellectual pleasures than any of other his films so far. It's the stellar topper of his career to date, the true genius amongst an accomplished brood.

Jennifer Saylor, February 25, 2002

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