Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind is a mildly attractive Hollywood
drama thanks in no small part to the excellent lead performances of Russell
Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. Based ever so loosely on the life of brilliant
but mentally troubled mathematician John Nash, Jr., Mind is a film
that has an equal amount of merits and debits.
The film opens in 1947 at Princeton University, where the West Virginian
math genius has arrived thanks to a graduate fellowship. Nash is a whiz at
numbers but has a bit more trouble socially ('I'm a well-balanced person',
he quips early on. 'I have a chip on both my shoulders.'). He spends most of
his school years by himself, searching for "one original idea" (he would
never have made it in Hollywood) that will allow him to make his mark on the
world. The only thing that search seems to yield is concern from his
adviser, Helinger (Judd Hirsch). This quest almost costs John his
fellowship, but eventually he does come across the idea. This lands him a
job at M.I.T., where he meets and falls in love with his future wife, a
student named Alicia (Connelly).
It also lands him a top-secret code breaking assignment with the United
States Government. Working with a spy by the name of Parcher (Ed Harris),
Nash begins to decipher the codes being sent by the Soviets to their
operatives within America. Before long, the work begins to take its toll
both on Nash and his marriage, as he believes that more and more the Soviets
are coming after him. Or are they?
For approximately three quarters of its running time, A Beautiful
Mind works. It's a compelling drama, one that showcases a rather
restrained directorial turn from Howard (well, restrained in comparison to
his last film, How The Grinch Stole Christmas). This is some of his
best work since 1995's Apollo 13. Akiva Goldsman's screenplay does a
commendable job in pulling us into Nash's world, exploring what makes him
tick and what drives him to find that "one original idea". It also handles
Nash's descent into mental illness evenhandedly. While the darker aspects of
Nash's life, found in Sylvia Nasar's biography, have been given the
Hollywood whitewash to make the story more acceptable for mainstream
audiences, the first two acts do make for solid drama.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The third act,
dealing with Nash in his later years, slides the production right into the
predictable maudlin territory it had so smartly avoided for most of its
running time. Having A Beautiful Mind turn into something along the
lines of Mr. Nash's Nutty Opus robs the film of a certain amount of
its credibility. It leaves us with a drama that is good but nowhere near as
great as it could have (and should have) been.
The performances by Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, however, never
falter. Despite looking a bit too old to be a college student in the film's
beginning, Crowe immerses himself into the role of Nash with his trademark
intensity and conviction, delivering yet another stunner of a performance
that comes close to rivaling his work in 1999's The Insider (which I
still think is his best work to date). Connelly follows up her powerful work
in Requiem For A Dream with another winning turn here as Alicia. She
delivers a winning combination of brains, beauty and inner strength to a
role that could easily have been written off as the clichéd long-suffering
wife. Both turn in acting worthy of nominations if not an award or two.
In the supporting roles, Paul Bettany comes off best as Nash's college
roommate, Charles, while Christopher Plummer is also quite good in his brief
turn as Nash's doctor, Dr. Rosen. Ed Harris, rather surprisingly, comes off
rather flat as Parcher. Decent work, but not quite up to the level one
usually expects from a great actor such as Harris.
Had Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman actually had the chutzpah to tell
Nash's story in a truthful and straightforward manner, then A Beautiful
Mind would have really soared both as a drama and as a "triumph of
the human spirit" tale. It would probably also have been a small,
independent film that few would have seen. As it stands though, it's a decent mainstream drama that showcases two
excellent lead performances.