A Beautiful Mind

I’ve always believed that there’s a very thin line between genius and madness. The brilliant people I know are also the most eccentric. I know how I feel after a day of multitasking. Imagine how you would feel if your mind never shut down. It would be enough to drive you crazy.

That’s the point of “A Beautiful Mind,” a positively entertaining and extremely complex drama about the effects of mental illness. Directed with confidence by Ron Howard from a powerful script by Akiva Goldsman, “A Beautiful Mind” features an Oscar-worthy performance by Russell Crowe as John Forbes Nash Jr., a brilliant mathematician whose struggle to cope with schizophrenia is filled with emotional highs and devastating lows.

“A Beautiful Mind” benefits from a coming soon trailer that is careful not to give the best moments of the film away. The trailer gives you a sense of what the film is about, a calculated tease that allows you to appreciate the many pleasures. I was constantly surprised and exhilarated by the filmmaker’s ability to keep me on my toes.

Howard, whose career has been leading up to this moment, delivers a film that captivates the mind and the heart. You know very little about Nash going into “A Beautiful Mind,” but all that changes when you leave the theater. Howard and Goldsman do an accomplished job of bringing Nash’s life to the big screen, employing clever plotting that demands we pay attention.

From the first moment we meet Nash, we feel that we’re in the company of greatness. Crowe so perfectly inhabits the spirit and soul of Nash, exploring his deepest fears and paranoia with amazing accuracy. Crowe makes Nash so instantly likeable that we embrace him and his passions. The film hop scotches over fifty years of Nash’s life, and Crowe makes each stop memorable.

After winning a scholarship to Princeton to study under the prestigious Professor Helinger (Judd Hirsch), Nash finds himself at odds with the system. His classmates Richard (Adam Goldberg), Bender (Anthony Rapp) and Martin (Josh Lucas) find his obsessions odd. The only person who understands Nash is his roommate Charles (Paul Bettany), who pushes him to ignore convention and go for the gold ring.

Nash’s hard work pays off when he creates a revolutionary economic theory that lands him a job at the Wheeler Defense Labs on the MIT campus. With Richard and Bender in tow, Nash begins to carve out a reputation for being the best at what he does. He gets a chance to prove it when the Pentagon asks him to break a difficult Russian code. So impressed with his ability, Department of Defense agent William Parcher (Ed Harris) recruits Nash to break codes for him.

While teaching a class Nash encounters new physics student Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly), who instantly wins his heart by taking control of a difficult situation. Nash and Alicia quickly get married, but trying to maintain a normal life while operating as a covert agent begins to take its toll on Nash. His paranoia begins to get the best of him, and when a scheduled drop turns into a rolling gun battle with Russian agents, Nash begins to break under the stress.

Nash’s state of mind makes up the second half of “A Beautiful Mind,” and it’s here where the cast excel. Connelly is exceptional as a woman who loves her husband but can’t understand what is wrong with him. When Alicia finally finds out, watching Connelly handle the hope and heartbreak is a real workout.

Goldsman’s screenplay tackles tough subjects but treats them with integrity and a just a small amount of theatrical bravado. Instead of pity and sorrow, we feel sympathy for the characters. Like Paul Bettany’s Charles, who despite his tendencies to get Nash into trouble, is actually good for him. By the time we learn why, Bettany has created such a compassionate character that we want to see more of him.

Even Harris as the mysterious G-Man who takes Nash under his wing seems to have his best interests in mind. Parcher represents life’s uncertainty. He may be putting Nash in danger, but it’s the thrill of the chase that keeps Nash from slipping into darkness.

Behind the camera, Howard has displayed a talent for turning difficult material into mainstream amusement. “A Beautiful Mind” is a departure for Howard. The film is extremely accessible, but it’s not warm or fuzzy. It’s very sincere in its message, and even though it’s not the complete story of John Nash Jr., it’s the sort of film that makes you want to learn more about him.

“A Beautiful Mind” is a period piece, but Howard avoids expensive recreations by keeping the camera up close and personal. Nash’s world is very insular, and director of photography Roger Deakins captures that world with tight shots that suggest more than we see. Howard not only uses close-ups to save money but to help us feel the world closing in on Nash. The more he slips into darkness the closer the camera gets until it’s almost unbearable.

The film benefits from the exquisite production design of Wynn Thomas, which gives us a real sense of time and place, and James Horner’s delicate score that underlines rather than clobbers the dramatic tension.

I love when studios sneak a film like “A Beautiful Mind” into the year-end mix. It not only proves they respect mature audiences, but that they have saved the best for last. With its outstanding performances, clever script and seasoned direction, “A Beautiful Mind” is indeed one of the best films of 2001.


Russell wrestles with schizophrenia in Beautiful Mind


Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Paul Bettany, Adam Goldberg, Judd Hirsch, Josh Lucas, Christopher Plummer. Directed by Ron Howard. Rated PG-13. 134 Minutes.


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