Friday, July 13, 2012

The Oscar Project #74: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

A Beautiful Mind is at times brilliant and at times schmaltzy, but it’s always interesting. I think that might have more to do with the subject of the film himself rather than Ron Howard’s directing, but either way, I like this movie, despite its many imperfections. Even though I was frustrated with it on a number of occasions, it was easy enough to overlook those flaws.

I first saw it over a decade ago shortly after reading the book, written by Sylvia Nasar, which I also enjoyed immensely. The film is a loose adaptation of the biography, which covers John Nash’s early life, work, descent into madness, and recovery in much greater detail. I think Howard’s decision to narrow the scope of the book was the correct one; schizophrenia is difficult to portray on-screen, so using more tangible representations of Nash’s hallucinations was the right call.

For the uninitiated, the film version of A Beautiful Mind is about John Nash, the economist and mathematician responsible for many breakthroughs in game theory, particularly what is now known as the Nash equilibrium. More specifically, it’s about his struggles with schizophrenia and his eventual, near-miraculous recovery, after which he is awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

Most of what I know about game theory was learned from the book, but it’s mentioned only in passing in the film. I understand why—I imagine game theory is even more difficult than schizophrenia to discuss in a movie—but at the same time, I was disappointed. I think the topic is fascinating. In general, I have no issues with the subjects that were included and excluded in the film, except for one. My favorite part of the book was when Nash turned down a university appointment because of his obligations as the “Emperor of Antarctica.” Surely the filmmakers could have found a way to include that gem.

Russell Crowe does a pretty good job as Nash, in a role that couldn’t possibly be more different than his role as Maximus last year. Nash is shown as a meek, timid West Virginian, an undeniable genius who even from the start shows signs that he might be coming unhinged. The early scenes of the movie take place during his graduate school days, where he seems rather high-strung but not necessarily crazy. Of course, we later learn that not everything was as it seemed.

Soon after becoming a professor, he falls in love with and eventually marries one of his graduate students, Alicia, played by Jennifer Connelly. Never mind that his real life wife was from El Salvador; I guess having a West Virginia accent and a Latin American accent in one household would be a bit much for the audience to handle.

Judd Hirsch again mentors a crazy person in a BP winner.
Connelly’s Alicia seemed somehow out of place. It’s not the quality of her acting that was the problem; it was that she looked like she belonged to a different time. In a room full of flat tops, suspenders, and pocket protectors, she appeared to be decades removed from her classmates, like she had used a time machine to travel back to the 1950s to take Nash’s class. 

And here’s another thing. They make a connection because she comes up with an elegant, though incorrect, solution to an impossibly difficult problem he presents to the class. Based on this, it would seem like she is a gifted mathematician in her own right, especially considering that she was a grad student at MIT in the first place. But after that moment in Nash’s office, we never see her do anything academic again. She’s consigned to the role of his long-suffering wife, doing nothing but birthin’ babies and taking care of the house. I know this is the John Nash story, but wouldn’t it have made sense to develop her a little more as an academic?

Instead, she settles into her role as the person who cries about how crazy her husband has become. And he is crazy, no doubt about it. I don’t think the film is intended to be scary, but many of the scenes do seem pretty creepy once you realize what’s going on. Because really, how are the people who talk to him in his hallucinations any different than ghosts? And isn’t it possible that people who claim to have seen and interacted with ghosts have just a touch of schizophrenia? That would be my first thought if I saw a spooky, spooky ghost in my house. Well, you know, if I recovered enough from my terror to ever think again.

Then again, Nash doesn’t conceive of his visions as ghosts. They’re just people. People who never age and that only he can see. And they never, ever leave him. Even in his later years, he just comes to accept they’re not real, but that doesn’t mean they go away. I can’t imagine how terrifying that must be.

This was the first Best Picture winner released after the attacks of September 11, yet another testament to how far The Oscar Project has come. Wings, which seems like a lifetime ago, was released 14 years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. A Beautiful Mind was also, at least technically, the first winner released in the 21st century. I’m not sure if that has any broad significance, but it demonstrates that this film appeared at an interesting point in history. It was the beginning of a new era, for better or for worse.

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