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.”