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.
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 clichs 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.
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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.