It’s difficult to pinpoint what aspect of A Beautiful Mind is more lacerating: Russell Crowe’s notion of crazy (picture John Goodman doing a David Helfgott impersonation while chewing on Marlon Brando’s Godfather tissue paper), the loveless direction, the egregious abuse of numerical signifiers, or the disturbing manner in which schizophrenia is transformed into Sixth Sense-style entertainment for the masses. Yeah, that’s right: Ron Howard’s Rain Man perseverance saga comes readymade with a midpoint rhetorical shift that tries to excuse the schmaltz of John Nash’s (Crowe) fabricated existenz. Nash is of the K-Paxian kind, his scribbling of complex algorithms upon Princeton windowpanes accompanied by a tinkly James Horner score. This is pre-fabricated Oscar dribble at its worst, condescendingly rewriting a life struggle as an easy-to-digest Lifetime movie of the week.
If Hanna-Barbera wanted to render a cartoon character’s lengthy day travels, the cartoonists might have cut from a shot of Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the dog prancing before Big Ben. Back in film school, we were instructed to stray from exactly these kinds of simpleminded techniques. A young Nash sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dorm to accentuate the changing seasons (leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp). Howard gets the job done (the spectator assumes a school year has passed) but there must be a less reductive method of signifying the passage of time. This kind of lifeless direction is far from challenging, so bland and ordinary it could be packaged and sold with an accompanying cookie cutter.
If at all possible, there are even less subtle abuses at work here: Howard’s camera spins to no end whenever Nash walks into a virgin room (you know, the kind someone has never been inside) while the fall of game pieces comes replete with accompanying thumps courtesy of overzealous sound designers. As written by Akiva Goldsman (A Time to Kill, Batman & Robin), A Beautiful Mind affords little room for the frequent errors of human communication. Every pronoun and adjective is as pitch-perfectly calibrated as the careful placement of horrified witnesses to Nash’s frequent flights of lunacy. There’s nothing organic about Goldsman’s script, which condescendingly transforms Nash into a mere child annoyed by imaginary characters. For one’s easily digestible pleasure, Gumpian taglines are readily available. Most nauseating: “This is all I am.” Not impressed? There’s always: “They were wrong, John. No one wins.”
The danger of Howard and Goldsman’s bio-flick is that it sacrifices authenticity (gone are Nash’s real-life experiences with aliens and the same sex) by implicating the spectator in a circus-act (in effect, the audience is tricked into believing in his world). Mind‘s first hour is a bona fide thriller (ripe with car chases and top-secret document drop-offs). Howard takes his time convincing the spectator that Nash is a Pentagon operative; in the end, Nash may have a corner office but his number-crunching is entirely self-serving. Mind is less concerned with Nash (the man, the scientist, the genius) than it is with promoting a ridiculous litmus test: you too can be crazy, but only for two hours! Okay, so Howard has fashioned the first half of Mind as a view-askew from Nash’s own mind. This is interesting enough (more so in retrospect) but think of the fascinating, unending possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. This would have been a braver, more authentic approach (certainly more ethical), replete with tragedy and remorse from the start. Moral qualms aside, the narrative is still quintessentially cornball: is the first hour of Mind supposed to be the world as seen by a master mathematician gone crazy or a Midwest yokel who’s watched Dead Poet’s Society a hundred times and still thinks emotionally-frayed characters slide down the sides of doors once they’ve locked their lovers out?
There is one mitigating factor: a gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, as grieving wife Alicia, successfully stifles nausea with each line-delivery. Nash’s courting ritual is worthy of Danielle Steele (is that an equation for love written on Nash’s chalkboard?); he motions to the sky, finding an umbrella amid the starry sky. If Connelly glows, Crowe creeps. In effect, it becomes particularly difficult to gauge Crowe’s performance when his romantic gaze becomes less loving and more like a stifled need to chew or spit on Connelly’s naked back. Forget Nash’s beautiful mind, Alicia reminds Computer Brain that freedom lies in one’s beautiful heart. Nash is liberated: a group of pen-loving elders bestow their approval via a ludicrous Princeton tea party, a new kid on the block conjures images from A Beautiful Mind: The Next Generation and Nash courts the Nobel Prize (you’ll never know why he wins the award but Crowe and Connelly happily distract with age make-up left over from For the Boys). A Beautiful Mind is like a brick to the head to anyone who ever winced at the utterance of “infinity plus one.”
A Beautiful Mind is presented here in a gloriously crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The warm, old-fashioned tones of Roger Deakins's color palette look better on the small screen though the artificiality of the film's many effects sequences are more evident now that the film has made it to digital. The sound is also impressive. Howard's notion of crazy is making sure sound travels quickly from right to left speaker. The score's tinkly whooshing feels just right on one's home entertainment system.
The first disc in Universal's two-disc set of A Beautiful Mind includes production notes, cast and filmmaker info, and DVD-ROM Total Axess features. Currently, Universal's Total Axess portal allows you to view a photo gallery, exclusive video of the film's world premiere, and footage of what it was like to work with Crowe. Coming soon: no less than 14 featurettes that will cover everything from "Finding Humor" (no doubt the unintentional kind) to "Ron Howard: The Right Director" (no, Universal didn't mean for that to be funny). Also included here are 18 deleted scenes from the film, accompanied here by optional commentary by Howard. Not surprisingly, there was a better film left behind on the editing room floor. John Nash apparently invented a mathematically precise board game that became a precursor to the game Hex. Howard has never shot anything remotely as tense or stylish as this sequence, which finds Crowe walking nervously around a group of benches (from above, they bring to mind England's Stonehenge) situated in the center of an abandoned college campus. This scene says more about Nash's insanity than any other moment that made it into the actual film. Similarly, an uncompleted effects shot with Connelly about to witness a nuclear explosion touches on the guilt Nash might have felt during this time period. Howard makes great use of the long shot in a scene at the film's insane asylum that included his own father in the role of a man who also speaks to imaginary people.
Also included on the first disc are two commentary tracks, one by Howard and one by screenwriter Goldsman. Here's a game for everyone to play: Count how many times Howard says the word "undermine" during his commentary, which reaffirms that Howard and Godsman's main concern was to keep the audience in the dark for as long as possible. Howard, unsuccessfully, thought he was referencing Southern inferiority complexes by giving Nash an imaginary friend who happened to be British. Howard claims that Nash first met Alicia when the young Latina opened a window during one of his classes. The director, though, doesn't confirm whether Alicia also arched her buttocks in John's direction and spoke to sweaty construction workers after opening that window. Crowe revealed to Entertainment Weekly that, to his disappointment, Goldsman and Howard actively chose to underplay Nash's gay experiences though there is a scene in the film where Crowe does wink at Nash's fluid sexuality when walking down a corridor with Judd Hirsch. Of course, Howard and Goldsman make no reference to the moment. Not surprisingly then, the commentary track is a cop-out.
The set's second disc is jam-packed with what feels like an eternity's worth of supplemental material. On "A Beautiful Partnership: Ron Howard and Brian Grazer," Mr. Grazer recalls how he learned about Nash in Vanity Fair and how he faced the challenge of having to choose between Howard and an unnamed A-list director to helm the project. (Assuming Joel Schumacher wasn't available at the time, someone please smack Grazer upside the head.) On "Development of the Screenplay," Goldsman ghoulishly discusses his need to make the film's audience think they are crazy, once again proving that the filmmakers are so insecure that they have to trick their audience into sympathizing with Nash. This feature is most notable for shots of Nash and his very ethnic wife on the set of the film. On "Meeting John Nash," Howard resists zoning out when a perfectly sane Nash describes his equilibrium and bargaining theories for a good eight minutes. Note to viewers who failed calculus: this featurette may cause insanity. See a long-armed Nash (actually, it's just the tux that makes the arms look so long) accept the big daddy of all prizes on "Accepting The Nobel Prize In Economics."
On "Casting Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly," Grazer and Howard speak so generally about charisma, trust, and chemistry this could have easily been a feature on Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas DVD. The very talented Greg Cannom speaks about his make-up work for the film on "The Process of Age Progression." A "Storyboard Comparisons" section compares the storyboards for five scenes (two ultimately deleted) and the finished product. The best featurette on the disc, though, is arguably "Creation of the Special Effects," on which members of the special effects team discuss how they created several of the film's more mundane effects and how they added water to a tub with a baby inside to make it look like the child was drowning for the film. James Horner is called a "wonderful storyteller" on "Scoring the Film" and the very long "Inside A Beautiful Mind" pretty much covers just about every point discussed on the disc's other 101 features. Also included here are reactions from the winners to their Academy Awards, the film's theatrical trailer, a soundtrack plug, and a wonderful sneak peek section that allows you to view film clips and DVD features from other Universal atrocious crazy-man pictures like Patch Adams and K-Pax.
There are There are enough features on Universal's A Beautiful Mind disc to make anyone crazy. Luckily, the company was generous enough to provide viewers with links and contact info for various mental health associations across the country.