You walk into A Beautiful Mind with a sense that you know what you’re about to see—because it’s a film biography of a still-living person, and you always know what you’re about to see in a film biography of a still-living person. Intriguing protagonist is born, rises to the top, overcomes adversity and ultimately triumphs. It’ll be like every VH1 Behind the Music you’ve ever seen, only lovingly photographed and accompanied by a sweeping orchestral score.
And then the movie unspooling in front of you starts to bend in a way that defies all the laws of cinematic logic you’ve held to be true.
All right, perhaps the shift in sensibility delivered by A Beautiful Mind isn’t quite that radical. But anyone who actually read the Sylvia Nasar biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr. that serves as the source material would never have seen this interpretation coming. It’s a bracing experience watching a story you expect to be solemn and reverent turn into a mercurial intellectual puzzle. You don’t expect it from the guy who directed How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and you certainly don’t expect it from the guy who wrote—and we use that term oh-so-loosely—Batman and Robin. Somehow, such unlikely players take subjects like theoretical mathematics and schizophrenia and turn them into vivid cinema.
Our biographical subject Nash (Russell Crowe) is introduced during his first year as a Princeton graduate student in mathematics circa 1947. Nash is the kind of social misfit who appears to have been born without a tact gene—he comes on to girls in bars with a straightforward, “Just tell me what I need to say so that we can have intercourse’’—but he makes up for it with a burning desire to find a wholly original mathematical concept. And find it he does, developing a groundbreaking “game theory” that virtually re-defines economics.
Nash appears marked for greatness—and for happiness in his marriage to former student Alicia (Jennifer Connelly)—but he soon finds himself recruited into a secretive Cold War world by government operative William Parcher (Ed Harris) to break codes intended for Russian spies. Except the assignment may not actually exist. Parcher may not actually exist. Half of the things Nash experiences may not actually exist.
In many ways, A Beautiful Mind makes use of all the most traditional elements of film biographies. The understanding, supportive spouse is in the house, as is a colorful gallery of supporting characters like Nash’s sly college pal Charles (Paul Bettany) and his Princeton rival Hansen (Josh Lucas). The narrative’s redemption arc takes us on that aforementioned journey from summit to gutter and back again, never straying from the essential material of Nash’s life. Though Goldsman’s script wisely bypasses trite scenes from a challenging childhood, it still coalesces into the basic shape of a bio-pic.
The unexpected angle A Beautiful Mind takes from that basic shape is a trip inside Nash’s brilliant, tormented head. Howard directs a scene in which Nash achieves his “game theory” breakthrough as a moment of fundamentally altered perception of the world—seeing people as components in a puzzle, yanked into and out of specific contexts of his devising. We see it again when Nash is first summoned to the Department of Defense to unravel a coded message, random numbers leaping and coalescing into meaningful systems in a way only he could see.
As Nash’s visions grow darker and more complex, it becomes clear that A Beautiful Mind isn’t the kind of biography in which the plot consists of “this happened to him and then this happened to him and then this happened to him.” Nash’s life becomes a leaping-off point for an exploration of what it’s like to be inside a head that can’t be trusted to offer reliable data about the world—and it becomes all the more heartbreaking and fascinating because Nash is a man for whom everything revolves around reliable data. What appears at the outset to be a simple story of a genius’ life turns into a thriller, a romance and the kind of tricky mystery where you begin to wonder whether someone is paranoid because everybody really is out to get him.
The performances by Crowe and Connelly give an intensely human face to the pain of schizophrenia, though both are bound to have their detractors. Crowe’s Nash tics and twitches his way through life even when he’s at his healthiest, which may make it seem that Crowe is hamming his way through the role. Instead, it turns him into an alien among fellow humans, whose retreat into fantasy worlds involves less complex interactions than those with the real people he doesn’t always quite understand. Connelly, meanwhile, strikes a neat balance between Alicia’s determination and a lingering despair that she’ll never have a normal life. Even when the scenes between them are at their most dramatic or sentimental, something always feels genuine and tense.
If A Beautiful Mind does eventually become fairly routine as a biographical study, it’s during the final half-hour as Nash slowly re-emerges into the world. The expected scenes pop up precisely when you expect them—most of them long foreshadowed—turning the conclusion of the film into a well-made but unremarkable march towards Nash’s 1994 Nobel Prize. But even in those more conventional moments, A Beautiful Mind never makes Nash’s triumph unbelievably triumphant. Howard and Goldsman leave you with the lingering realization that some real-life stories don’t end neatly, and that an illness like Nash’s doesn’t disappear when the closing credits roll.
A Beautiful Mind (PG-13) *** Directed by Ron Howard. Starring Russell Crowe, Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly.