A Beautiful Mind
Director: Ron Howard
review by Charles Glicksman
How long will it take Hollywood to finally make a film that depicts mental illness without
exploitation? In most attempts, characters are relegated to caricature, devoid of the human element
that is necessary to accurately depict someone suffering from such a devastating illness. To those
who have expected more from mainstream cinema’s depiction of mental illness, I afford my sincerest
apologies. Not only has Hollywood slapped these poor sods in the face, they expect awards and
recognition for daring to enter the territory. Bear witness to these stains of cinema: Remember
Mr. Jones? Yeah, I thought so. Romantic trysts between psychiatrist and patient? Not only
unethical, but borders on the criminal. How about K-Pax with Kevin Spacey? The patients in
this film are really shells of what people afflicted with mental illness are truly capable of.
Girl, Interrupted? Okay, Angelina Jolie rocks as a psychopath (typecast anyone?) but the film
drowns in its own melodrama. Of course there’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey’s
literary masterpiece of the goings-on at a Pacific Northwest mental institution (based upon his own
experiences as a mental health worker in the Oregon Mental Institution). Jack, The Indian, and Nurse
Ratchet, a nurse you never, ever want to fuck with. While the acting and writing were Oscar-worthy,
the film is less a depiction of mental illness than a societal examination of the horrific treatment
of the mentally ill.
Leave it to director Ron Howard and Russell Crowe to finally get it right (at least
with the facts they decided to present). Equal parts human melodrama, love story and suspense,
Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, is able to transcend the pitfalls of similar films. Gone is the
dehumanisation of the mentally ill. Gone is the idea that love or intelligence cures rather than
heals and supports. While Howard does have the penchant for melodrama, especially towards the final
third of the film, it would be wise to not let his previous miscalculations (the manic Grinch Who
Stole Christmas, the hardly focused, chaotic Backdraft, the warm and fuzzy all over
Cocoon) deter you from seeing his most character driven picture to date.
Russell Crowe portrays the brilliant, yet troubled John Forbes Nash, who made a
name for himself by winning the Nobel Prize in economic theory while suffering from paranoid
schizophrenia. We begin at Princeton, where prodigal boy Nash was expected to develop the 'one idea'
that would separate himself from the other students. He takes to drawing his formulas in chalk on
library windows. After securing a teaching position, he meets and falls in love with one of his
students (a career defining performance by Jennifer Connelly).
His brash, arrogant persona complements the beginnings of his first psychotic
break, as these brilliantly executed mannerisms can be taken for either haughty pride or mental
instability. It is a testament to Crowe for being able to display the subtle nuances of the shy,
awkward Nash. He does not beg the audience to feel sorry for him. His unsentimental personality is
the key for making audiences believe that he may be in control of his emotions and his perceptions.
We later discover that his reality detours sharply from yours and mine.
It has been a treat to follow the career of Jennifer Connelly. Although it has
taken her over 20 years to perfect her craft, she has made two career defining performances within
the last two years. In Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream, her devastating turn as a
heroin junkie turned heads and rekindled a career most notable for exposing a little more than she
intended in the John Hughes flop, Career Opportunities. Her performance is the emotional heart
of the film; passionate, concerned and frightened of Nash’s unstable mind, yet unwavering in her
devotion to a man she doesn’t even know.
Much has been made of the omission of particular aspects of Nash’s life, including
his bi-sexual curiosity and divorce. While some very important aspects are omitted, the film’s
performances keep this film from slipping into contrived nonsense. Crowe embodies the young Nash as
cocky and arrogant, a welcome change from most saintly portrayals of the mentally ill. Crowe is one
of the best actors working today. We’ll forgive him for a misstep or two (Proof of Life)
because he is absolutely dead-on with most of his performances. Whether fighting corruption with
attitude in L.A. Confidential, quietly coming undone in the wake of a big tobacco scandal in
The Insider, or rejuvenating the epic film genre (a la Sparticus, Ben-Hur)
through spectacle and grandeur with Gladiator, his method style performances are racking up at
a mean pace.
While this may be Ron Howard’s crowing achievement so far, his watered down version
of Nash’s life continues to define his propensity for mainstream moviemaking. He appears comfortable
with sticking along the straight and narrow, sacrificing reality for bubble gum sweetness. While A
Beautiful Mind does wonders, it could have been more. But who wants to see more. Bi-sexuality?
Divorce? Oh, what I would have paid to see filmgoers squirm in their seats while Crowe plants a kiss
on another guy. But I guess I’ll have to imagine Howard taking these types of chances in another
lifetime. The film is good, but it could have been something else; an accurate portrait of a real
hero; faults, impulses and all.
Guide to the Movies
compiled by Tony
Lee editor of Pigasus Press
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