I’ve never loved this movie. Upon it’s original release I liked it fine, but I simply could not understand why it won Best Picture over The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. It was partially pique on my part at the time, but revisiting this film for the first time in over ten years, I was surprised at how muted my reaction to the film was far removed from that “controversy”. From the beginning of Ron Howard’s dramatization of John Nash’s life, I felt that the treatment of Nash’s mental illness was trite (much in the same way as was in Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen). As the film continued, I kept wondering why I wasn’t getting caught up in this tale, and it took until after the movie was over for me to figure it out.
So, John Nash is a brilliant mathematician welcomed to Princeton who has trouble with people. He barely knows how to interact with them, one of his teachers back in West Virginia described him as having two servings of brains and only half a serving of heart. He is so set on finding a new idea that he never goes to class and publishes nothing, spending more time monitoring the movement of birds, trying to determine an algorithm to describe their movements than anything else. It’s in this section that we’re introduced to John’s first hallucination, Charles, his roommate, and the problem becomes rather clear in retrospect.
Charles is unlike any other character in the movie. He’s extravagantly boorish, having a position in the English department and complaining about DH Lawrence, and he sticks out like a sore thumb. Everyone else feels grounded, but Charles feels like he comes from another zanier movie. This problem gets shared by John’s later major hallucination, Parcher, a US government official who brings John into an operation to find hidden messages and codes in periodicals. Everything about Parcher stands out against the reality we discover later. The sets are too big, the technology too outlandish, and the treatment too broad.
Now, I think there’s an argument to be made that Nash’s hallucinations should stand out, but I wouldn’t agree with it. Nash spends years with these hallucinations, and since the movie is told from his point of view the audience should feel like the hallucinations are simply a natural fit into the world around them. They do stick out rather horribly, though. This could be less of a problem if these hallucinations were taking on the mantles of different movie genres like a spy thriller with great skill, but the spy thriller stuff is pedestrian at best. It’s perfectly serviceable and no more. So we get these scenes that feel like they belong to different movies that probably aren’t that good anyway. This uneasy balance between how the movie presents Nash’s hallucinations and his reality creates this real friction that keeps the movie from working all that well. Bringing down the outlandishness of Charles and the heightened genre tropes of Parcher, creating more subtle characterizations and scenarios (imagining Parcher’s scenes playing out like the recent adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which was all mood and atmosphere instead of sets and car chases seems like a good idea) could have made this first half work much better.
So, the second half operates on the turn that Alicia, John’s wife, discovers the depths of John’s mental illness and has him committed to a psychiatric hospital. Under the careful watch of the understanding Dr. Rosen, John receives 1950s treatments for schizophrenia including insulin injections. When he’s released, he’s given medication that dulls him to the point that he can’t work, can’t really watch their child, and he can’t respond to his wife’s advances. This is where the movie works best, as the portrait of a genius intentionally cut off from what made him special, and the wife who supports him. As this section played out I envisioned a better movie that started with John getting taken to the hospital and told exclusively from Alicia’s point of view. She cannot understand why the off-kilter but genius man she fell in love with has become a raving loon obsessed with hidden messages and a drooling vegetable in equal measures. She loves and gets nothing in return.
I think back to Amadeus by Milos Foreman. Told from Salieri’s perspective, it was a movie about genius told by a character who was less than that. It was an attempt to understand genius from the point of view of a man who was trying to understand it himself. In the same way I feel that A Beautiful Mind should have been about the balance of genius and mental illness told from the point of view of someone trying to understand it, his wife. As told now, the film genre jumps and ends up feeling trite.
So, I say the second half is better, but that’s only up to a point. After John refuses to take his medication anymore so he can work, Parcher returns and gets him to restart his work looking for hidden messages. Nash realizes the extent of his illness after a confrontation with Alicia, and he decides to try and seek help, but the movie descends into “love conquers all” territory where Alicia and John will sit together and figure out the illness together without the help of doctors and medicine. It’s trite. I have no idea if this is how the real John and Alicia dealt with the illness, and I don’t care. This feels like Hollywood simplifying mental illness, its problems, and its solutions. If the point of the movie was that the love of Alicia for John helped him out of his illness, then that’s what the movie needs to be about from the beginning. Turning the movie in that direction in the final act ends up feeling cheap.
Ron Howard is a perfectly competent director, filming what’s on the page with skill. However, in my mind, he’ll never be more than a passable technician of a director even with some great movies under his belt like Apollo 13 and Rush, and I think A Beautiful Mind highlights that reality. It’s well made, but it brings the faults of the screenplay to the screen without a second thought. He feels like a director for hire where if given a great script, he’ll make a great movie, but if he’s given a subpar script he’ll do nothing to make it better. There’s a specific moment late in the film that highlights that, I think. Alicia is talking to John as they prepare for him to be taken to the hospital again. She’s in the doorway and he’s behind the bed. She’s asking him if he still sees the people, and the camera points down to focus behind her as Charles’ niece briefly runs behind her. The focus on where the girl runs instead of on Alicia with the girl’s shape filling the corner of the frame allows for the audience to definitely see the girl, but it feels wrong. John’s focus on that moment wasn’t the open space next to his wife, it was his wife. Charles’ niece should have popped in, not been the focus. Ron Howard is there to film that script to the best of his ability. With A Beautiful Mind, though, the script needed to be rethought completely from the beginning. That this movie rode a wave of praise to Best Picture is an indictment of the Academy and its thinking.
I can see the appeal. It’s the same kind of broad appeal that makes certain types of comedies huge hits, or giant action spectacles. It’s simple storytelling to a low denominator that makes it easy to digest, but the movie’s own schizophrenia in terms of how it tells Nash’s story (along with a healthy helping of saccharine treatment of the characters, especially early) along with it’s complete unwillingness to challenge the audience makes it a surprisingly dull affair for me.
Now, having said all that, it seems like I hated the film. I didn’t. It’s okay, and that is really driven by performance. Russell Crowe is really quite good as Nash, embodying the character with tics that help him blend in. I do wish he had dropped a few more pounds because it’s hard to hide the fact that Crowe is a big guy when he’s playing someone who barely eats, but that’s a minor thing. Jennifer Connelly as Alicia brings a woundedness to her character that works quite well. Ed Harris is appropriately menacing as Parcher. I don’t really like Paul Bettany as Charles, though. A lot of my problems with Charles stem from Bettany’s performance.
This could have been something special. Instead it’s thin Hollywood entertainment that, I don’t think, has particularly stood the test of time all that well.