The life and times of John Nash (Russell Crowe), from his entry into Princeton University as a grad student in 1947 to his winning the Nobel Prize for economics in 1994... He gets established as a genius, becomes best friends with roommate Charles (Paul Bettany), falls in love with and marries student Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), gets recruited for government code breaking by Parcher (Ed Harris), is diagnosed as a schizophrenic by Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer), and struggles to live a normal life in light of this discovery.
It was with some caution that I approached `A Beautiful Mind`. For one, it features a lead character with a debilitating condition, something that few actors ever manage to pull off with dignity and restraint. Secondly, it`s been directed by Ron Howard, whose overly sentimental credentials (`Apollo 13`, `Parenthood`) don`t exactly advertise him as the best person to handle this sort of subject. Finally, it`s a big-budget studio picture (as opposed to gritty, independent film) based on someone`s real life, meaning that the screenwriter usually struggles to water down the quirks that make the person so individual in the hopes of not offending the widest possible audience.
True, the film does not entirely overcome some of these limitations. When given the opportunity, Howard still resorts to blatant audience manipulation. So, in a scene of Nash getting electroshock treatment, we are shown a close up of Crowe twitching and twitching and then twitching some more.
Luckily, these moments pale in comparison to the overall inventiveness in the film. Like how the genius of Nash is shown by having numbers `speak` to him, through one of the most beautifully innovative uses of special effects in the movies. This level of visual playfulness continues throughout. There`s another scene where we see Nash riding a bicycle and his trajectory dissolves to the mathematical symbol of infinity.
The screenplay does get more mileage out of the bond between Nash and his wife than from any of the serious stuff that his academic work was probably made of. All we`re told is that Nash hit on his `original idea` by observing groups playing football and pigeons fighting for crumbs. But this sort of `mainstreaming` is offset by wonderful lines (Nash describes himself as well balanced, as he has `a chip on both shoulders`) and conceits (In a truly imaginative sequence, Nash wows Alicia by deciphering shapes from the stars in the heavens).
Also appreciable is the effort to treat the schizophrenia very matter-of-factly, even with humour. After his hospitalisation, Nash asks a visitor if he can see Harvey beside him. His explanation to the flustered visitor: Relax... What`s the use having a mental illness if you can`t have some fun with it!
Any niggling doubts about the worthiness of this enterprise are finally cast away with Russell Crowe`s great, stunt-free central performance. After his haunted lead in `The Insider` and the tender-macho posturings of `Gladiator`, Crowe once again delivers a magnificent display of his craft. Just watching his body language alone -- the quick hand gestures, tics like not looking directly into people`s eyes -- is astonishing. But with the added effect of his imposing screen presence, you cannot help but be overwhelmed.
The people surrounding Crowe are also excellent, notably Connelly, who should finally get the recognition that eluded her incredible work in last year`s `Requiem for a Dream`. Ed Harris is solid as always, and Bettany overcomes his sketchy role with some interesting quirks. These supporting characterisations benefit greatly by the film`s revealing things to us only as Nash himself discovers them. Having no foreknowledge of who`s who, there are some wonderful surprises in store.
With Roger Deakins` cinematography bathing the film in exquisitely warm hues and James Horner`s suitably sentimental score, `A Beautiful Mind` comes off a tad too lush and overproduced considering its themes, but this is the rare film that touches your head as well as heart without being either too mawkish or overly cerebral.
Only the last few scenes go a trifle overboard, as Nash, in heavy old-age makeup, professes his love for Alicia, equally heavily made up with wrinkles and all, from the podium in Stockholm no less. Eyes mist up. The violins swell. In light of what you`ve been treated to earlier, however, you don`t grudge the film its big, schmaltzy finish.
The ending may be pure Hollywood, but Nash`s amazing story impresses on you an all-too-familiar reality. Truth is truly stranger than fiction.
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