February 7, 2002

Paranoia Strikes Deep

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It is to the great credit of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman that A Beautiful Mind, the Ron Howard directed biopic of John Nash Jr. (Russell Crowe) did not become a paint-by-numbers foray into docudrama. The docudrama genre, which has been reinvigorated in recent years by The Hurricane and Ali, comes with the crippling burden of being predictable and formatted within an inch of its life.

In the first act we meet the protagonist, who is likeable, driven, obviously brilliant and arrogant. We are also introduced to his supporter (Paul Bettany) and love interest (Jennifer Connelly — the girl from Labyrinth who has grown into an assured actor and turns in a commanding performance). In the second act we witness the rise (Nash revolutionizes game theory) and fall (he becomes a paranoid schizophrenic). But fear not, for by the third act, the hero has made his triumphant return (Nash makes his way back to sanity and receives the Nobel Prize).

It would seem unnecessary to see the movie in order to know the story. Yet this film demands to be seen because of its unobtrusively great performances and because of the utterly perfect way that Goldsman tells the story. Russell Crowe deserves all the accolades he has received for his work. He sinks into Nash and inhabits him so utterly that he does what other high paid stars cannot (Julia Roberts, I’m looking at you): he makes us forget that he is anyone other than a tortured mathematician.

Crowe opts out of the easy histrionics and scenery-chewing that have typically marred the Hollywood representation of mental illness. Instead, it is the quality of self-awareness in the performance, that Nash sometimes knows he is insane yet can do nothing about it, that makes it so effective. Jennifer Connelly makes what could have been a stock caricature — the loyal wife — into a fully dimensional character. Her Alicia is a graduate student when she meets Nash, and her ability to understand his work deepens their relationship into a partnership. Alicia supports Nash throughout his ordeal but Connelly makes sure we see just how hard this decision is. Through Connelly we see the stress Nash’s illness puts on his family, so that her decision is powerful rather than incidental.

The true star and soul of the film however, is its script. Goldsman has found a unique way to show an audience a mind at war with reality. Her screenplay’s surprise is not a fashionable plot twist (I will not say here what it is — see the movie), it is nothing less than essential to the story.

Goldsman’s illusion depends in large part on the believability of Ed Harris (as a government agent) and Paul Bettany. Harris is at his icy-eyed best, but it is Bettany’s endlessly generous and loyal portrayal of Charles that is the real revelation here. Finally, Goldsman introduces two nuances that move the film from overdone process into real drama. First she reveals Nash’s fear that his madness is inextricably connected to his brilliance; that if one goes then so must the other. Then she shows us Nash’s choice to risk the titular beautiful mind for a chance at a more complete heart and life.

Archived article by Erica Stein