Head of the class
Don’t let the happy TV commercials and the fact that the often sunny Ron Howard directs fool you about A Beautiful Mind. This is a dark and often disturbing film that represents one of the best cinematic treatments of mental illness you are likely to see.
The movie depicts the life of John Nash, who won the Nobel Prize for game theory in 1994 and is now a mathematics professor at Princeton, where he was a graduate student in the late ‘40s. After teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the ‘50s, Nash spent a quarter century in and out of various mental hospitals, muttering to himself, speaking to people who weren’t there and trashing a potentially great career as a scientist.
Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Russell Crowe’s portrayal of this complex genius, coupled with Ron Howard’s extraordinary approach to a tough subject, makes for one shocking movie.
We first see Nash as a student at Princeton, and it is immediately apparent that he is different from the other students. While obviously intelligent, he’s screwing up in his classes and having difficulty in social situations (his approach to women is, let’s say, a little drastic). Crowe portrays these early years effectively, speaking with a West Virginia accent and employing a combination of shyness and brutal cockiness.
Nash has a roommate named Charles (Paul Bettany), a fellow student who is just too good to be true. Charles becomes Nash’s shoulder to lean on, displaying extreme coolness in the face of Nash’s moodiness, at one point even throwing a desk out a window to cheer him up. Charles has a cool-cat persona that Nash obviously envies, and we will find out later in the film that he is in possession of a big secret.
Later, while teaching a calculus class at M.I.T., Nash meets Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), and they begin a sweet romance. Neither Alicia nor Nash himself have any idea that he is a delusional schizophrenic to an extreme degree. The movie reveals Nash’s illness to us in a way that is as shocking as it is ingenious. I am going to great lengths in this review not to ruin things for the reader, because I saw this film without knowing its secrets and was completely blindsided.
Crowe netted an Oscar last year for a performance in Gladiator that, while good, I nonetheless found unworthy of that award, but he should be a front-runner for this year’s trophy. He portrays a man who not only ages more than 40 years during the course of the film but also is convincingly ill. Crowe portrays Nash’s affliction in a way that is both painful and remarkable to watch. The filmmakers do a great job hypothesizing as to what a person with schizophrenia deals with—the jarring fact that voices and visions that seem so real are imaginary.
Howard, whose last effort, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, was an enjoyable throwaway, produces his best effort since Apollo 13. He pulls all-around impressive performances out of his cast, including Connelly, who was so good in last year’s Requiem for a Dream and is a good bet for an Oscar nomination. Reliable performers such as Christopher Plummer, Adam Goldberg (Saving Private Ryan) and Ed Harris round out the cast.
The last portion of the film seems a little rushed and convenient, but it’s also a bit of relief to see Nash learning to cope with his disease. While the film as a whole narrowly misses being one of the year’s best, Crowe’s performance is a major standout. A Beautiful Mind was not what I expected to see, and it will catch a fair share of its viewers off guard. I love it when that happens.