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Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #74: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly

The line between genius and mental illness is frightfully thin. Vincent Van Gogh, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bobby Fisher – all brilliant, all just a little bit crazy. Add John Forbes Nash to that list, the brilliant mathematician who suffers from schizophrenia and is the subject of the Ron Howard directed Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind. Though the film itself sometimes runs the risk of falling into some A Very Important Film trappings, it ultimately rises above its more formulaic elements.

Russell Crowe stars as Nash, introduced in the film as a newly arrived grad student at Princeton in 1947. Nash is brilliant with numbers but awkward around people, though he is able to forge a friendship with his roommate Charles (Paul Bettany). Once he finishes his studies he moves on to MIT to teach and strikes up a relationship with one of his students, Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly), whom he marries, and shortly thereafter he begins working for the Department of Defense as a codebreaker under the guidance of William Parcher (Ed Harris).

As he continue his work, Nash becomes increasingly paranoid that he’s being pursued by Soviet agents. His behaviour becomes so frightening that Alicia alerts authorities at a psychiatric hospital, who forcibly commit him. During his time at the hospital it is revealed that not only were his assignment and Parcher delusions, but so was Charles, and Nash undergoes a series of shock therapies and drug treatments in order to get his illness under control. The medications, however, disrupt his ability to do his work, prompting him and Alicia to try to find a way to live with his condition and control it without medication.

Based on the book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar, the screenplay was adapted by Akiva Goldsman, who would ultimately win the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his effort. The first part of the narrative is built like a thriller, a spy story with Nash playing the part of the man who gets in over his head and becomes a target of dark forces. Howard does a good job building the tension in this part of the film and finds a way to provide cues that point to Nash’s interactions being the result of delusions without making them blatantly obvious. It gets deep enough inside his point of view to make these scenes work while also standing far enough outside the character to provide the groundwork for the revelation that none of his experiences actually happened. As the film shifts into its second phase, when Nash and Alicia struggle to cope with his illness, it becomes more of a straight drama but it works just as well. Howard is able to handle the shift in a polished way that never interrupts the flow of the story or pushes the audience out of the experience.

Much of the success of A Beautiful Mind is due to the actors, particularly Crowe. His performance is a very carefully crafted and never self-indulgent. He plays the character rather than the disease and makes Nash more than just the sum of his mental illness. His performance is moving and well-realized, as is that of Connelly, whose performance must act as the anchor to the story. They play off of each other very well and bring dimension to the relationship that helps make the resolution feel so triumphant. Neither actor was the first choice for their respective roles (actors apparently considered before Crowe include Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage and Charlie Sheen, meanwhile Meg Ryan was to play Alicia but dropped out before production started – how weird would this movie have been if it had starred Cruise and Ryan?), but it’s difficult to imagine any other actors in these roles after having seen the final product.

I don’t think that A Beautiful Mind is a perfect film or even necessarily the best that 2001 had to offer (of the nominees I prefer Gosford Park and The Fellowship of the Ring, though my favourite of the year is the un-nominated Mulholland Drive), but it’s a very good film with a great many strengths. It's definitely still a film worth watching.


Film Conqueror said...

so I looked over some of the posts on your blog...it seems like we're doing sort of the same thing...I'm also trying to watch all of the Best Picture Nominees! I love the way you write about all of them...you have very good taste :)

Norma Desmond said...

Thanks! I'll be sure to check out your Best Picture reviews.

Espana said...

I became obsessed with the hyp for the movie and the man. I never expected to like the book as much as I did. Could not put it down. Even reading through the mathematical problems was easy. I was so disappointed when I finished it. I will not forget this book for a long time!