A Beautiful Mind is the best evidence we may have to prove why the Oscars suck. Here we have one of the best films of the year, one destined to be nominated in multiple categories, big and small. It boasts what may be the best performance of the year by Russell Crowe (possibly the best of a career) and a directorial effort from Ron Howard that’s going to silence those remaining naysayers who still believe he’s not one of the best storytellers in the business. A cloud hovers over their Oscar chances however by a little big title that won five Oscars last year and that film is Gladiator.
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Crowe trades in his battle armor for a pocket protector this time as John Nash, a brilliant mathematician who in 1947 was starting graduate studies at Princeton University. Nash likes to keep to himself, occasionally hanging out with fellow brains, but not quite the social communicator. Refusing to dull his mind by attending those pesky college things known as “classes”, Nash wanders and hides throughout the campus searching for his “original idea.” His fellow non-classmates mock his attempts, but his brash roommate and good friend, Charles (Paul Bettany) tries to relieve his stress through pizza and beer.
After months of nearly driving himself insane, Nash finds some clarity and winds up with a revolutionary game theory of mathematics. Given any placement he wants, Nash takes up at MIT where he teaches and occasionally takes trips to the Pentagon for rounds of codebreaking. His talents attract two very important people in his life. One is Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), a beautiful student of his whose ability to solve the simple logics of everyday life is a perfect match for Nash’s genius and societal inequalities. The other is William Parcher (Ed Harris), a government agent who introduces John to a whole new world of cloak and dagger.
As John’s assignments become increasingly more complex and suggestively more dangerous, his world takes a turn for the worse. He develops suspicions of people all around him, notably those in the black hats and big black cars. Crowe and Howard do a superb job in getting us inside Nash’s mind, how he crunches the numbers and the fear that consumes him. We feel his terror, and can understand how working for the government during the Cold War could lead someone to a bout with paranoid schizophrenia.
John’s life begins to spiral out of his own control and the audience continues to wonder who is truly on his side. Who is really trying to help him and why all of a sudden? Is it a conspiracy or something much darker and terrifying? Most extraordinary and heartbreaking is the way John, aware of the genius he possesses, tries to work through the problems on his own. Even for a man who can detect numerical patterns through infinite coded sources, this proves to be something almost impossible to do alone, turning Alicia into his white knight.
Many details of the real life story of John Nash have naturally been condensed or excised. An arrest for indecent exposure stemming from homosexual relationships, a prior relationship leading to a child out of wedlock before even meeting Alicia and a subsequent divorce from her before later taking him back as a border are all absent from A Beautiful Mind. Thus, in many ways, lends itself to the schizophrenic nature of making and reviewing a movie taken from prior source material and historical information. Even though a movie tells us a story in two hours, we may know something going in or find out something afterwards that may bring us closer to the real story and the real truth. There’s what you know and what you don’t know, but a movie is its own reality and should be judged accordingly.
And what a great movie it is. Academy members are going to be requesting second ballots to nominate it in as many categories as possible and probably slugging themselves in the genitals for giving Russell Crowe his first Oscar for Gladiator instead of this. If they could have held their water just one more year because, he’s a lock to be nominated for a third year in a row. But will voters be squeamish about giving him two in a row? They shouldn’t because Crowe’s work here many not just be the best of the year, but the best of his career. His transformation from a young, cocky asocial whiz to madness to recovery is flawless. Aided by some of the best subtle makeup work of the year, Crowe’s mannerisms and movement leaves nothing to our imagination that this is a man who has aged 50 years right before our eyes.
Jennifer Connelly is also a shoo-in nominee doing some of her best work as the long-suffering and long-loving Alicia. Connelly could have taken the easy way out with her career by just accepting roles that utilized her stunning beauty. But like Alicia, she hung in there, with both big and small parts in little known films and this is her springboard for greater rewards. Ed Harris, who always seems to be perfectly cast in every role he takes, is even more perfect as Parcher, a perfect amalgamation of Cold War paranoia and the atypical secret government agent. Listen closely to the way he throws around the phrasing of “the bomb.” The rest of the supporting cast is uniformly excellent, especially Paul Bettany (completely redeeming himself from this summer’s unwatchable A Knight’s Tale) as Nash’s loyal friend. Adam Goldberg, Josh Lucas, Anthony Rapp, Judd Hirsch, Austin Pendleton and Christopher Plummer are also all terrific in small, but crucial roles.
Even technical credits are perfectly A-list. Roger Deakins cinematography brings to life the earthy tones of the 1940s and the shadowy corners of the 50s. James Horner’s score (as nearly all of them do) recalls previous compositions of his. This one brings to mind the piano strains of Searching for Bobby Fischer, which in some ways is totally appropriate. Since that excellent film was about chess, it’s only fitting that Horner could aid another seemingly uninteresting and unfilmable subject (mathematics) and make it thrilling with beautiful music.
A Beautiful Mind almost seems to aid itself though at every turn. All the pieces are there and Ron Howard fits them all together as if playing the perfect game of Go. Howard has been making crowd-pleasing entertainment for decades now, maybe too crowd-pleasing for some of his harsher critics. In a world where good directors are usually either filmmakers or storytellers (only occasionally both), Howard has always been one of the best of the latter. With Apollo 13 and now A Beautiful Mind, Howard fits into that rare binary category of both and its time his detractors started recognizing that. Do not miss the opportunity to see this film because this Mind would be a terrible thing to waste.
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