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Photo by Eli Reed "Genius does what it must," declared the minor Victorian poet Owen Meredith. "Talent does what it can." Few movies demonstrate this truth more nakedly than director Ron Howard's uplifting biopic A Beautiful Mind, the story of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, who spent a lifetime tiptoeing along the shadow line between genius and madness. When we first meet Nash (played by Russell Crowe) as a grad student in late-1940s Princeton, he seems to have leapt full-blown from the pages of an Ayn Rand novel. A driven loner, he thinks university classes a waste of time, belittles his colleagues' intelligence and pushes himself to come up with a "truly original idea." And, rather quickly, he does—a huge breakthrough in game theory. Nash has an unparalleled gift for uncovering hidden patterns (the inner logic of birds' movements, shapes formed by the stars), and this lands him a teaching gig at MIT. It's there that he's recruited by a shadowy intelligence officer (Ed Harris) who asks him to crack Soviet espionage codes hidden in newspaper headlines, and it's there he's pursued, inexplicably, by his future wife, Alicia, played by the ravishing Jennifer Connelly. But then, just when Nash seems to have it made, the patterns start exploding inside his head, plunging him into hallucinations that threaten to cost him everything—his work, his marriage and his young son.
The great crisis of Nash's life is that his most inspired ideas and his wildest delusions spring from the same unconscious core—he's being destroyed by what makes him great. At once blessed and cursed, expansive of intellect and churlishly self-absorbed, Nash is the sort of unruly, larger-than-life role that would appeal to any actor, especially one so well-practiced at churlish self-absorption. But while Crowe may bear a surprising resemblance to the actual Nash—they have the same bullish physique, the same blunt good looks—he's not altogether convincing as a 20ish math prodigy. His fussy little hand movements feel gimmicky. But once Nash starts going mad, Crowe taps into that deep current of angry self-pity that fuels nearly all of his work. His performance gets richer and more heartfelt until finally, as the geriatric Nash, he's uncannily convincing.
Not a little driven himself, Crowe would run off a cliff for a movie. I wonder how he enjoyed working for a director who's forever clutching the guardrail of conventionality. It's not that Howard is incompetent but that his competence is deadening. He smoothes away all of life's jagged edges and, no matter what the story, makes a beeline for the most obvious idea or emotion. Because Nash's story is extraordinary, A Beautiful Mind is watchable and sometimes touching, especially when it comes to Alicia's attempts to understand what's going on with her husband. Bathing her in cinematographer Roger Deakins' exquisite lighting, Howard gives Connelly a radiance she hasn't shown since Once Upon a Time in America (though she's grown so thin it's slightly unnerving).
Unfortunately, he also puts Nash's sprawling, contradictory life on the Procrustean bed of "inspirational" filmmaking. Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman clearly intend to turn their hero's story into the math-geek version of Shine, in which brilliance leads to breakdown, which leads to salvation-through-the-power-of-love. While this comforting arc will doubtless satisfy many viewers, Nash's story has the potential to be far grander than any tearjerker about a schizophrenic second-rate pianist. His whole life hinges on the tug of war between genuine inspiration and insanity, between uncovering real-world patterns and sliding into paranoia—conflicts that have fired the imaginations of artists and innovators from Freud to Nabokov to Antonioni to Pynchon. Yet Howard and Goldsman don't even notice, let alone explore, these themes. And they run scared from the actual facts of their hero's life. When I finally caught up with Sylvia Nasar's prize-winning biography, I was flabbergasted at how the movie had changed or expunged virtually everything that might have given us the true historical and psychological texture of Nash's life. I wouldn't expect Howard to show Nash's conversations with poet Robert Lowell when they hung out together in a Boston mental institution (though I'd love to know what this odd couple had to say to each other). Still, I do have to wonder how any filmmaker could choose to leave out (among other things) the fact that Nash's delusions involved space aliens, not communists; that his paranoia was fed when his math mentors were hassled by McCarthyites; that he tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship; that he had several homosexual relationships but denied he was homosexual; that he had a mistress who bore him an illegitimate son; that he was arrested in Santa Monica for indecent exposure; that the loyal Alicia actually divorced him (though they remarried years later); that his legitimate son, John, also fell into madness; that he viewed the regaining of his sanity as something of a mixed blessing because it also diminished his genius. What a list! If Ron Howard had made Ali, there'd be no Black Muslims or womanizing, and Ali would've won that first fight with Joe Frazier.
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