Movie Review: A Beautiful Mind
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
In "A Beautiful Mind," Russell Crowe plays a schizophrenic Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and, though the role might seem a real stretch for an actor who just won an Oscar for his Charlton Heston turn as Maximus in "Gladiator," he and the movie ace the test.
Crowe is eerily, touchingly convincing as John Forbes Nash, a real-life mathematics genius who made a revolutionary breakthrough in game theory (which explains economic relationships) as a Princeton student but later suffered a violent breakdown, derailing his brilliant career and making chaos of his marriage and life.
The movie, directed by Ron Howard in a real turnabout from last year's "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is unsparing and exhaustive in its dramatization of Nash's rise, fall and rise. Spanning almost 50 years, it shows Nash's early triumphs, his descent into a delusional hell and his inspiring recovery, beginning with his arrival at Princeton as a cocky West Virginia math whiz in 1947 and climaxing with his 1994 Nobel Prize.
During that half-century journey, we meet Nash's fellow students, rivals and friends such as stalwart Sol (Adam Goldberg) and his bizarre, mercurial roommate Charles Herman (Paul Bettany) his mentor Prof. Helinger (Judd Hirsch), his doctor Rosen (Christopher Plummer) as well as mysterious, tight-lipped government agent William Parcher (Ed Harris). Most affectingly, we come to know his gutsy wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), a brainy campus belle forced to go into the fire with her tortured husband.
Playing this demanding part, Crowe gives an amazingly complete performance. He convinces us that he's an arrogant young genius, and he's also believable as a melancholy, vulnerable old man, shambling across the campus, trying to keep his demons at bay. The movie is surprisingly scary in its evocation of Nash's private terrors, and it's very moving when it shows us his bonds with Alicia and his battles to hold onto his disintegrating life. But it's not especially accurate in its rendering of his life even though Sylvia Nasar's book, "A Beautiful Mind," is the ostensible source.
Writer Akiva Goldsman alters events and Nash's character. And then he concentrates instead on taking us inside the fictionalized Nash's mind as he falls apart; Goldsman charts the nightmares that the rest of the world can't see or understand. The movie contains some startling, jolting visualizations of madness moments of extreme disorientation and swimming horror.
But thanks to Crowe and Howard, the picture has both edge and human feeling, tension and warm veins of sympathy. This is Howard's best film since "Apollo 13," and it's a subject ideal for his major virtues: his rigorous organization and unforced compassion, his ability to draw believable communities. As for Crowe, this is a role, like Jeffrey Wigand in "The Insider," that confirms his dedication as an actor, his willingness to take large risks and deliver on them.
Crowe compels us initially with his trademark glowering intensity, his brash actor's narcissism because those qualities mesh with Nash's swagger as a young, egotistical academic star. But as Nash falls prey to his inner torments as Harris' bullying agent Parcher intrudes more and more into his life and Nash breaks down trying to satisfy his demands Crowe gentles the character, cracks his armor. Like the FBI agents in the current Frank Darabont-Jim Carrey blacklist film "The Majestic," Parcher comes to symbolize the paranoia of the Cold War years. In a way, he's a nightmare manifestation of the entire country's madness as well as key agent of the movie's most stunning surprise. In succumbing to Parcher, Nash is tapping into the terror of the times and Harris infuses the role with quiet menace and demonic intensity.
A very savvy Hollywood publicist surprised me 10 years ago by arguing that the two best '90s American filmmakers were Ron Howard and Rob Reiner, two TV actors turned movie directors who regularly field compliments for making each other's films. That confusion probably stems from the similarity of their "invisible" styles and their worldviews: liberal, humane, humorous, keyed around groups and families under pressure. The publicist exaggerated (as publicists do) but "A Beautiful Mind" proves that we tend to underrate Howard. It's a movie that gets its emotional effects effortlessly: an intelligent drama imbued with the classic craftsmanship, engrossing narrative and smooth "finish" of the better Golden Age studio products.
It may even have a personal vein as well. Wouldn't a prodigious young child actor like Ronny Howard of "The Andy Griffith Show" have been familiar with the perils of early fame and brilliance, of being "different?" Didn't he, like Nash, have to somehow create or retreat into worlds of his own? Howard actually may have a unique take on one of the movie's principal themes: the sometimes terrifying workings of imagination.
But "A Beautiful Mind" is also a movie about how families can save lives: a consistent theme of Howard's movies and one he develops here without damaging sentimentality or sugary formulas. It's also a movie about great intelligence: how it can ennoble and alienate those who possess it. Movies about intellectuals often fail because the life of the mind is so much harder to dramatize than the life of the senses or of the man of action. But "A Beautiful Mind" scarily, movingly, beautifully bridges that gap. It shows us the joys and terrors of seeing things that others can't.
"A Beautiful Mind"
Directed by Ron Howard; written by Akiva Goldsman, based on the book by Sylvia Nasar; photographed by Roger Deakins; edited by Mike Hill, Dan Hanley; production designed by Wynn Thomas; music by James Horner; produced by Brian Grazer, Howard. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, Dec. 21. Running time: 2:09. MPAA rating: PG-13 (intense thematic material, sexual content and a scene of violence).
John Forbes Nash Russell Crowe
William Parcher Ed Harris
Alicia Nash Jennifer Connelly
Dr. Rosen Christopher Plummer
Charles Herman Paul Bettany
Sol Adam Goldberg
Prof. Helinger Judd Hirsch
Hansen Josh Lucas