PATIENT: A Beautiful Mind
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PROFILE: Predictable biopic about unpredictable mathematical genius John Nash that examines his life and work through the lens of his schizophrenia. Think Shine meets Goodbye Mr. Not Playing With All His Chipsmeets To Schizo, With Love.SYMPTOMS: A lot has been made of the fact that this Oscar favorite didn't closely follow the actual life of John Nash—his infidelities and his anti-Semitism. Look, a storyteller has only one responsibility: to tell a good story. Be pissed the film didn't do that. Instead, the filmmakers settled for the worst kind of Hollywood narrative, driven by their expectations of what our expectations are. This is a movie about a man out of control that boasts very few surprises—except that apparently mathematicians get more tail than Jonas Salk. Playing to the internal clock we've all developed watching this tired paradigm, we know we're supposed to like the crazy mathematician and nothing really bad will happen to him and that the sassy girl who's way too good-looking for him will succumb to his charms—poor grooming, boorishness—because he's the one the camera lingers on. Though the film does a good job at first of immersing us into the world of a schizophrenic, the moment that becomes uncomfortable, there are cheap comic outs: the point when Nash "decides" not to listen to the voices in his head and bids their personified forms farewell plays like a delusional Wizard of Oz—"Goodbye, Self-Destructive Paranoia. I think I'll miss you most of all." A Beautiful Mind is so banal yet so popular and honored that it's ultimately not about the warping of John Nash's mind as much as the warping of our own.
DIAGNOSIS: You threw away marital infidelity and paranoid racism for this? What are you, nuts? PRESCRIPTION: You don't have enough of a story to be throwing away dramatic stalwarts like infidelity and racism. There is no dramatic tension in the last 20 minutes of the film—none!—just a series of grand gestures, swelling music and applause. Actually, that's your whole movie. So first, we're going to use that infidelity and racism to flesh out this man and those around him. How much do his genius and/or mental illness limit his actions, and how much do they enable them? Does he take advantage of them and the people around him? Do those people challenge or placate? You see, these are questions. Questions are good in biopics. Take a look at the superior Iris, about British novelist Iris Murdoch's Alzheimer's decline. That film manages to maintain Murdoch's dignity even while she pees in the middle of her living room (no simple feat, eh, Keith Richards?). But it also presents an exploitive, flawed human being without benefit of ruby shoes to make everything all right. A good biopic means never getting too comfortable with the film's subject, whether it's Mozart, Patton, Von Bulow or Wonka. Discomfort breeds drama. Unfortunately, your film's success will just breed more of the same.