Few mathematics geniuses have ever served as the subject of a major motion picture, so John Nash now has broken the mold both in his own profession and as the unlikely hero of “A Beautiful Mind.” Consistently engrossing as an unusual character study and as a trip to the mysterious border-crossing between rarified brilliance and madness, this serious-minded but lively film is distinguished by an exceptional performance by Russell Crowe as the Princeton prodigy who was beset by schizophrenia in the 1950s only to conquer the disease and win the Nobel Prize in 1994. Although the true tale has been somewhat conventionalized by very familiar “inspirational” storytelling techniques to the point where the picture will make Nash as much of a folk hero as “Shine” did of David Helfgott, the film’s effective blend of intelligence and emotion will reach all manner of audiences, spelling a beautiful B.O. future for the latest entry in Ron Howard’s eclectic directorial resume.
Like “Shine,” this Universal/DreamWorks co-venture with Imagine Entertainment concerns a supremely gifted eccentric who, after an early run of celebrated precociousness, falls off the cliff but battles his way back with the essential help of a terrific woman. The same kind of film that worked cinematically the first time does so again, with Howard’s approach more mainstream than Scott Hicks’ yet paradoxically more delicate and refined.
Spanning 47 years and drawn from the well-received biography of the same name by Sylvia Nasar, Akiva Goldsman’s astute, and at a couple of points terribly clever, screenplay begins with Nash’s arrival at Princeton from West Virginia in 1947. Hardly normal Ivy League material but the recipient of the school’s top fellowship, young Nash is a socially maladroit misfit and unwashed nerd who is nonetheless oddly attractive, even hunky. Refusing to attend classes or read assigned books, Nash is seeking “a truly original idea” that will mark his breakthrough contribution in his field.
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Urged by his hard-drinking British roommate, Charles (Paul Bettany), to get out once in a while, Nash receives insight and inspiration from unexpected sources: the movement of pigeons and the group dynamic of his drinking buddies in a bar when confronted with a blonde they all covet. Although the film tries to “visualize” his insights in amusingly reductive ways, it’s impossible to really understand what this superbrain is up to. But we’re told that his penetrating paper on governing dynamics, or “game theory,” boldly challenges all economic theory of the past 150 years.
By 1953, Nash’s brilliance has been rewarded with a top position at MIT, where he is joined by former Princeton classmates Sol (Adam Goldberg) and Bender (Anthony Rapp). He is also paged by a secretive Defense Department operative, William Parcher (Ed Harris), who wants Nash to apply his special abilities to break Russian codes that Parcher insists are hidden in everyday newspapers and magazines. Thus begins Nash’s immersion in espionage, an exercise that sees him scanning and diagramming endless pages of newsprint looking for patterns and codes to emerge, then making surreptitious drops of his findings at a mysterious mansion.
Simultaneously, he’s pursued by one of his students, the dark-haired beauty Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly), who knows what she wants and gets it (and God knows where Nash or his wife would be today had stringent politically correct rules regarding student-teacher relationships then been in effect).
So just as Nash, who Parcher praises as “the best natural code-breaker I have ever seen,” is promoted to the most rarified levels of security clearance in an effort to thwart the detonation of a suspected nuclear device smuggled by the Russians onto U.S. soil, the math whiz embraces a “normal” life by marrying Alicia, settling down and fathering a child. But just as suddenly, it looks as though the gig is up: Nash’s drop has been compromised. He and Parcher are pursued by faceless enemies, and Nash becomes so jumpy and paranoid he wants to quit, which his superior will not permit.
Finally, Nash becomes so unhinged he’s carted off by a doctor (Christopher Plummer) who Nash’s old roommie Charles insists is actually a Russian agent. Shortly past pic’s midpoint, major revelations about Nash’s condition are made to both Alicia, who has been unaware of his activities, and the audience, and Nash begins conventional insulin therapy that is eventually followed by his resolve to battle a disease normally considered incurable.
Remainder of the picture follows a more predictable arc filled with tough challenges, tender moments and a few remaining surprises, on its way toward what is presented as the Nashes’ serene and content old age. But there’s the added kicker of the Nobel Prize, seemingly awarded for the theories Nash worked out as a student years earlier that have since, per an end-credits note, “influenced global trade negotiations, national labor relations, and even breakthroughs in evolutionary biology.”
Nice as this footnote is, it would be nicer still to have a few questions answered about the nature of Nash’s work and his accomplishments. Was the prize really awarded entirely for work the mathematician had done decades before? Did he, in fact, revolutionize economic theory? And was the doodling we see him doing during subsequent years a furthering of his prior breakthroughs or a journey in fruitful new directions? On these matters alone, the filmmakers have not honored their subject, preferring not to challenge the audience with things it might not completely grasp rather than to try to make the cinemagoer understand the man more fully.
Not to be faulted, however, are the performances, which make the story of these rare birds come alive most sympathetically. Physically powerful but often awkwardly out of step, clear-eyed but with his head in uncharted territory, bashful but capable of surprising and even lewd outbursts, and gentle but containing demons and danger, Crowe’s Nash is a complete creation, a strange and complicated individual rendered palatable and fascinating by a sensationally good actor. His regional accent wobbles at times, but it doesn’t particularly matter, and Greg Cannom, who handled the thesp’s transforming makeup on “The Insider,” does a smashing job here that complements Crowe’s understated technique to make the actor utterly convincing as the aging Nash in the scenes set in the ’80s and ’90s.
Connelly, who made a jump from longtime sexy ingenue to compelling actress in “Requiem for a Dream,” makes another major stride here with her warm, smart and confident work as Alicia, whose love for Nash is stretched to the limit but never broken.
Harris is appropriately mysterious and demanding as the government operative engaged in very closely guarded activities, and supporting players generally convince as characters bright enough to inhabit the upper echelons of academe.
Stylistically, Howard and ace cinematographer Roger Deakins keep the camera nimbly on the move and close to the actors. Editing by Mike Hill and Dan Hanley makes quick, even bracing transitions at times, and Wynn Thomas’ production design and Rita Ryack’s costumes offer unobtrusive contributions to the sense of passing years.
Especially notable is the work of James Horner, a busy composer whose scores can often sound the same, but who this time introduces some complex themes and musical dynamics that instantly suggest the presence of hidden mysteries in the story and its leading character.