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Wednesday, March 27, 2002

An award-winner by the numbers

A Beautiful Mind

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Ron Howard
Running time: 136 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Mathematics whiz at elite Ivy League university has a promising career ahead of him, that is, if he can get past the psychological demons that threaten to derail his life. Seen this one before? You could be forgiven for thinking "Yes! 'Good Will Hunting,' " but actually the film in question is "A Beautiful Mind," which bagged four Acadamy Awards this past Sunday night. Its take on genius, though, will certainly inspire more than a bit of deja vu.

Russell Crowe, hot off his Academy Award for "Gladiator," continues to show his range here, in the role of real-life Princeton mathematician (and Nobel Prize-winner) John Nash. Crowe sheds the buff physicality and stolid determination of Maximus like so much rusty armor, curling up inside himself and unfixing his gaze to portray the awkward, acutely shy professor.

We all know Crowe as the embodiment of machismo -- "L.A. Confidential," "Romper Stomper"-- but this role may be, conversely, the showiest he's ever done, one of those twitch-and-tic portrayals of mental illness that the Academy loves to reward. (Crowe's win last year was about the only thing that worked against him.) Sure, he's tried the introverted approach before, in Michael Mann's "The Insider," but that character was a bit too much of a cold fish to connect with audiences. Crowe gets to play Nash, though, with self-deprecating humor and all the pathos a Hollywood feel-good film allows (especially one directed by Ron Howard).

The story arc here will be instantly familiar to anyone who's seen "Shine": Nash starts off as an eccentric but promising young talent in his field, then his odd-but-brilliant personality gradually crosses the line into odd-but-crazy territory, and his career is effectively terminated by the onset of full-blown paranoid schizophrenia. A loving wife (Jennifer Connelly) supports Nash on the long road to recovery, where he finally triumphs over his affliction. (Cue the strings.)

Maudlin, yes, at times, but Connelly is an example of what's right with the film, and her Best Supporting Actress award is a deserved one. (And coming on top of her searing performance in "Requiem for a Dream," it would seem her career's finally in a groove.) Tough but tender, self-reliant but faithful, her role illustrates the very idea of modern femininity. Connelly nearly brims over with the repressed frustration at dealing with her husband's delusions, so when she gets to a moment of tenderness -- like the one where she places her hand on his face and says, "You want to know what's real? This" -- the poignancy is overwhelming.

One of the more interesting points the film raises is the dangerous similarity in thought processes marking both analytical insight and clinical paranoia: Both see patterns where others see only chaos; both search for unifying, linked theories that attempt to explain everything. The problem with paranoia, of course, is that these patterns are frightening, not enlightening.

"A Beautiful Mind" employs a very clever trick to throw you into Nash's world of paranoid insanity; it's perhaps the best subjective approach seen in a film this side of "Pi." It's so good that there's no point in ruining it with descriptions here; suffice to say that the line between delusion and reality is crossed so smoothly you don't even feel the speed bump. Somewhere between Nash's social isolation as a student at Princeton in 1947 (where his only friend is his layabout British roommate Charles [Paul Bettany]) and the 1950s climate of Cold War paranoia (in which the intelligence community recruits the top scientific and analytical minds to secretly serve their country), Nash snapped.

His recovery is slow and painful, involving electroshock treatment and a good deal of persistence. He also gets quite scary when he's off his medication, talking to people who aren't there and becoming dangerously detached from reality. Howard, to his credit, doesn't flinch from the emotional and psychological pain that Nash both suffers and inflicts on those around him, resulting in one of the more honest looks at mental illness. Not for him the cheat of "Shine," where traumatized Geoffrey Rush metamorphoses into a jolly old loon.

At least, not until the last reel, and that's where Howard cheats more than a bit: Triumph upon triumph mount for the mostly rehabilitated Nash, and when he finally gets the Nobel for his ground-breaking work in game theory, he thanks his wife and admits that in the end, it's love, not math, that matters. Yeah, pull out your hankie, but this reassuring message of total fidelity runs up against the reality that Nash not only divorced his wife and had relationships with men, but was even arrested once for indecent exposure. As such, this intriguing biopic veers over the edge into the "Erin Brokovich" zone of buffed-up hagiography.

Ah, well: Hollywood loves to give us flawed genius, but not too flawed. It's a weird bargain: In film after film (from "Rain Man" on down), we're shown that genius is the consolation prize for madness, or perhaps the opposite, but you never get the blessing without the curse. But as anyone who's seen David Heltgoff (of "Shine" fame) in concert can attest, real life usually doesn't offer such neat "closure." Perhaps that's a complexity worth considering in a film, but "A Beautiful Mind," isn't it.

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