Math-geek Shine

Also, The Shipping News

Early on, John Nash mocks his fellow students for doing derivative work. I can only imagine what he might think of A Beautiful Mind, which leaps at clichťs like a porpoise grabbing the fish from its trainer's hand. After Nash's breakdown, he's visited by a colleague, Sol, and grumbles that his medication makes it hard for him to do his work.

"There are other things besides work," Sol tells him.

Nash shoots back, "What are they?"

Cut to a shot of his baby son's pacifier on the floor.

While I don't doubt that Howard's done the best he can, it's sad to see a beautiful mind whittled down by such a plain one.

Fifteen years ago, Lasse Hallström was directing small, personal art films in Sweden, most famously My Life as a Dog. Today, he churns out cautionary adaptations for the Miramax Oscar machine—last year, Chocolat; the year before, The Cider House Rules. Now comes The Shipping News, a wan tale of redemption based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by E. Annie Proulx. It stars Kevin Spacey as Quoyle, a middle-aged schlub who's shattered when his brassy, unfaithful wife (Cate Blanchett) dies in an auto accident. Along with his doughty aunt (Judi Dench), he and his daughter move up to the ancestral home in Newfoundland, a rickety sea-cliff house that's lashed to the ground because of the winds. There, among the local Newfies, he writes the shipping news for the local paper, the Gammy Bird, and sets about rebuilding his life.

Proulx's original novel is a peculiar blend of pleasing eccentricity and "healing fiction" banality. She writes a highly literary prose that's as oddly turned as her name ("Clock hands leapt pellucid evenings. The sky riffled like cards in a chalk-white hand"), and this odd language helps capture the crabbed, sometimes magical quality of Newfoundland's landscape and people. But it also masks what's cheap and easy in the story itself. That mask is jerked off in Hallström's flat-footed retelling, and its hero's journey to self-realization resembles a long night on the Lifetime channel. Quoyle gets involved with a lovely single mother (played with characteristic grace by Julianne Moore); befriends the quirky, Northern Exposure-ish locals; and uncovers all sorts of dark secrets—the usual stew of incest, spousal abuse and family shame, seasoned with a few dashes of Newfie magical realism.

I was startled when I heard that cool, slippery Spacey had been cast as the guileless Quoyle, a role that begs for a soft, warm, sweet-faced actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind). A master of irony, Spacey is terrific at playing monsters, bastards and self-satisfied jerks who sometimes (as in L.A. Confidential) discover an inner vein of decency. But after winning his Oscar for American Beauty, he obviously decided that he wants us to love him. He has begun grabbing the kind of "poor me" roles (like the disfigured teacher in Pay It Forward) better suited to his late friend and mentor Jack Lemmon. A big mistake. As Quoyle stumbles through the Newfoundland scenery with a look of dumb, wounded decency that's as annoying as it is unpersuasive, his eyes let us know that he's smarter than the guy he's playing. Spacey is nobody's idea of a goodhearted innocent, and I wonder why nobody has told him he'll blow his career if he keeps trying to pass himself off as Mr. Sensitive. It's time to go back to playing assholes. That's what he's good at, and that's why we love him.

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