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Beautiful Mind: Beautiful Performances in a Beautiful Fiction


Russell Crowe as  John Forbes Nash Jr.  in A Beautiful Mind

Russell Crowe as John Forbes Nash Jr.

Russell Crowe as John Forbes Nash Jr. and Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Larde in A Beautiful Mind

Russell Crowe as John Forbes Nash Jr. and Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Larde

Russell Crowe as  John Forbes Nash Jr.

Russell Crowe as John Forbes Nash Jr.

Russell Crowe as  John Forbes Nash Jr.
Christopher Plummer as Dr. Rosen

Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures

By C. Antonio Romero

NEW YORK, 19 March 2002 - A Beautiful Mind is in many respects a first-rate film-- certainly one of the best Hollywood produced in the last year. But can its dead-on execution make up for its shortcomings?

Before digging in too deep, though, it's important to be fair, and point out what the movie does do well. First of all, there's Russell Crowe's performance in a difficult role. Here, Crowe has finally lived up to the hype that's been spouted about him in the last few years, since his supporting work behind Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential and his frankly mystifying nomination for his solid but unremarkable work in The Insider. As played by Crowe, Nash is brilliant, arrogant, often frustrated, self-conscious among Princeton's bluebloods because of his lower-class West Virginia origins, and a few notches past eccentric, Crowe is entirely believable during the period before his breakdown; and in the years where Nash's schizophrenia finally mostly demolishes his outward life, he conveys the deterioration of a once-vigorous mind and body perfectly, even faithfully capturing the air and physical mannerisms of the Nash who in his later years, nicknamed "The Phantom," haunted the Princeton campus, unrecognized even by many of the students whose work he made possible. (If Crowe simply isn't boyish enough to pass for a young man of 20, and a little too physically robust to play a frail Nash in his 70's, he can't be faulted for those things.)

The supporting players also turn in solid performances surrounding Crowe's standout work. Jennifer Connelly does fine work as Nash's devoted wife Alicia Larde, who falls for the thorny, ecccentric hunk of mathematical manhood (appreciating his finer qualities despite his awkward exterior), then stands by him through his decline and miraculous recovery. (If at times Alicia and Nash's romance seems a little psychologically unreal, chalk it up to Ron Howard trying to portray the brilliant as a little different from us everyday folks; and once things sour, they're actually much more believable.) Ed Harris's work as William Parcher, Nash's slave-driving spymaster full of secrets, is a bit one-note, but that's how the role is written, and makes sense in context; and likewise, Paul Bettany as English grad student and Nash's roommate Charles Herman is suitably charming and a good foil for Nash when he's most absorbed in his mathematics. Indeed, Ron Howard coaxes good performance across the board from his cast.

So what's wrong? The first objection, to be petty, is the gulf between this movie and the story of John Nash. While quite a few names and locations have been preserved, most of the particulars are pure fiction. Nash's actual mathematical insight is hinted at (in a clever scene that reduces it all to a scheme for getting the maximum number of people laid on Saturday night) but not explored in any depth. This is disappointing, but not unexpected. The outright omissions are huge. What of the rumors suggesting Nash's possible homosexuality? What of the arrest for indecent exposure after an encounter in a Venice Beach men's room, that ended his tenure at the Rand Corporation? (What of his tenure at the Rand Corporation, for that matter?) What of his divorce from Alicia, the good woman whose love sustains him in this film? (Granted, Alicia moved back in with him about seven years after the divorce, and lived with him for decades before they remarried.) What of his illegitimate child, from a liaison that predated Alicia? An attempt to renounce his U.S. citizenship during a trip to Europe? The actual content of Nash's delusions, as opposed to the clever but completely inauthentic (and implausible) delusions we see here?

If it were a mere whitewash, leaving off unseemly details to make Nash a more sympathetic character, this might be more reprehensible. But Howard seems to be up to something else here-- creating, essentially, an moving, pleasing, entertaining fiction inspired by, rather than based on, the life of John Nash. Is it his fault that, even as the book sells briskly, most viewers of the film probably never manage to plow through it, and may not realize just how much of a fiction the film is? (After all, in spite of what the bestseller lists said, how many people actually made it through Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time?) Is Howard's job really to prepare people for a pop-quiz on Nash's life and work? It would be nice if the real story could have been committed to film, but Howard's stooped no lower than most biopic makers in leaving out the difficult details.

The second issue, actually, is probably the one the film should be indicted for: what they added, after they stripped out all the weird bits of John Nash, and, more importantly, why. As well-executed and clever as the film is, its ambitions turn out to be awfully pedestrian. Nash's paranoid delusions are given a perfectly reasonable-seeming form, at least up to a point, where in fact they would have seemed bizarre on their face to anyone not in the grips of mental illness (though this might be useful, as it helps the audience grasp just how surprised someone delusional must be when they realize how completely out of step with reality they are). Finally, and most importantly, we see severe mental illness reduced to something best treated by a brilliant man reasoning his way through the breakdown of his own mind, and buttressed by the love of a good woman. (The insulin-shock treatment for schizophrenia was certainly rough on the patient, but did offer Nash some benefit.) Alicia's loyalty to her husband and Nash's ability to eventually get a grip on his disorder through her love and his own reason are uplifting, gratifying, inspiring, even if they are false.

What matters is that we've let ourselves be manipulated by yet another Hollywood product, albeit one more slick and well-crafted than most. Ron Howard has served us up a perfect emotional cocktail-- we're awestruck by genius, thrilled by an unfolding spy drama, touched by mental illness, uplifted by the poer of love-- all on schedule. Howard's technique is impeccable, but his aims are ultimately unambitious: he wants to jerk our heartstrings and jangle our adrenaline in all-too-familiar ways. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has created the perfect blending of some superficial details of Nash's life and the expectations we've all formed through watching generations of Hollywood movies, to let Howard achieve the desired effect. A good example: the quirky pen ritual by which Princeton faculty supposedly show respect for their honored colleagues. Ivy League institutions are a black box to most people, but, it is generally believed, they have quirky and archaic rituals-- so if the writer just invents something that fits well with the locations available for the shoot and people's expectations, who'll know the difference? It's not Princeton, but it is the Princeton that Hollywood has taught us to expect. The only unexpected thing the movie does, in fact, is revealing at a certain moment that some elements of the action to that point are delusional-- and this is not so much brave as clever. Wouldn't it be nobler or braver for a filmmaker to take on the real story of John Nash, with more of its complex ideas and objectionable facets intact?

As well-crafted as it is, it's impossible to not give A Beautiful Mind its due, with at least a three-star rating. But between its falsehoods, its predictability and its lacking the courage to take on Nash's real story, it's imposible to give anything more.

Three stars.

Related: Nash's brief autobiography for the Nobel Prize:

News story from Daily Princetonian on inaccuracies in the film

C. Antonio Romero received a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Princeton University in 1987. Professor Nash in his 'Phantom' period was a fixture of the Princeton campus during Mr. Romero's years there.

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