Monday, September 1, 2014

From My Collection: A Beautiful Mind Movie Review

The Academy has a great history of awarding the Best Picture Oscar to a generally lifeless, inoffensive work of mediocrity. I can hardly say that A Beautiful Mind is not a good movie (I regrettably put it on my top ten list for 2001), but it certainly isn’t great. It’s not even particularly memorable except in its simplistic depiction of mental illness.

I can’t say with any certainty to what degree John Nash suffered with schizophrenia or how it manifested itself, but I do know that the way Akiva Goldsman incorporates it into his screenplay, based on the biography by Sylvia Nasar, seems almost preposterous, designed specifically to aid the unsubtle viewer in understanding what Nash was going through. I guess I shouldn’t fault the movie for trying to reach a broader audience, but nor should we assume that it has anything new or interesting to say on the subject.

The real John Nash is a Nobel prize-winning mathematician who specializes in game theory that has found applications in the field of economics. Sometime during his studies at Princeton his illness became manifest and he became paranoid delusional. As the movie, directed by Ron Howard, tells it, he secures a job doing some minor code work for a government lab, but in his mind he is selected for a top secret mission to protect the United States from a Soviet infiltration of small-device nuclear weapons. Ed Harris plays the shadow agent who gives him assignments and turns out to be quite fictional indeed. Everything unbelievable in the movie turns out to be in Nash’s mind.

Goldsman focuses the story within two contexts: Nash as he views himself and his delusions which he believes are real; and his wife Alicia’s (Jennifer Connelly) reaction to his mental state and subsequent heroic attempt to live with it even while their life is crumbling as a result. The real Mr. and Mrs. Nash divorced, but the movie excises that particular plot point as being unsuitable to the narrative of the loving, supportive, rock-solidly devoted wife who refused to give up. It also leaves out some other details like Nash’s illegitimate child conceived prior to his marriage, and the fact of Alicia being a Salvadoran immigrant. I guess producer Brian Grazer felt the beautiful and fair-skinned Connelly was a better box office draw than a Hispanic actress would have been, never mind the facts.

Adam Goldberg and Anthony Rapp play Princeton classmates and friends of his who follow him professionally and try to cover for him when he seems to become mentally imbalanced. Paul Bettany is his roommate and lifelong confidant, who never seems to age and whom no one else ever interacts with. Josh Lucas is his arrogant genius rival, the good-looking suave flip side to Nash the introverted, slightly creepy guy who lurks and chases pigeons. Small but significant roles are filled by Judd Hirsch as Nash’s mentor and professor at Princeton and Christopher Plummer as the first doctor who attempts to treat him for mental illness. It’s Crowe’s performance that drives the movie. He is the star of the show without a doubt and it’s clear he did his homework and put his all into his portrayal of the troubled mathematician. It’s funny watching it more than a decade later and long after everyone has stopped talking about it, but so much of Crowe’s acting appears very mannered now. Time has not been entirely kind to this film.

It’s generally emotionally affecting at its core, which is the relationship between John and Alicia. However, the film might have done better to have a little more grit and strife between the two. How difficult it must be for someone to have to live with a man who is suffering such a calamitous illness. And at that, mental illness is so incredibly difficult for those not afflicted to truly understand. I’ve just recently revisited Good Will Hunting, a film whose story originally had a plot that relied heavily on the main character getting involved in government work and code breaking. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were advised to drop that subplot in favor of focusing on the relationships that Will has to his friends and therapist. I think that same advice might have been aptly applied here. Goldsman would have produced more humanly interesting work had his story spent more time on the ways John Nash’s illness destroyed his marriage and the strain it must have put on his professional relationships rather than try to get into his head for a subplot that, while I understand it plays out in his mind, is Hollywood thriller boilerplate. It comes across as a cheap cash in, something easier to sell as an exciting holiday movie. Exciting enough to draw the masses while also being serious enough to garner awards consideration. It paid off, I guess, so they were right in the end. Still, I would have preferred a better movie.

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