A BEAUTIFUL MIND (DIR: RON HOWARD) (SCR: AKIVA GOLDSMAN, BASED ON THE BOOK OF THE SAME NAME BY SYLVIA NASAR)
At first glance, the Academy's choice of Ron Howard's A BEAUTIFUL MIND for best picture made perfect sense: it was a handsome looking biopic about the trials and tribulations of a brilliant man, played by Russell Crowe, one of the world's biggest stars, who had just won an best actor award for GLADIATOR, the previous year's best picture winner. Furthermore, director Howard was a popular figure in Hollywood, having made the transition from successful TV star to film director smoothly years earlier. But, like so many biographical films, A BEAUTIFUL MIND was criticized for perceived inaccuracies in the life of its subject, and it's victory may have had more to do with a multimillion dollar public relations push by it's studio, Universal, than any real merit the film had. Now, it's impossible for any biographical film to be completely accurate, but I do think Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman may have taken one liberty too many here (more on that later). In any event, I think this overlong film falls far from greatness, with its predictable moments of uplift hitting all the obvious beats, and its glossy, almost too pretty cinematography by Roger Deakins that practically screams "Oscar"!
It all began in 1998 when writer Sylvia Nasar published A BEAUTIFUL MIND, the unauthorized biography of John Forbes Nash Jr., a Nobel prize winning mathematician who had struggled with schizophrenia for much of his life. Producer Brian Grazer liked the book and bought the rights and convinced Howard to direct. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman convinced them to let him write the script, partly because as a child both of his parents were psychologists, and it was he that came up with the film's central twist, that Nash's insanity would be portrayed from his point of view, with characters the audience assumed were real turning out to be figments of his imagination. With Goldsman's script set, Howard considered many actors for the lead role in what was becoming a hot property; finally Crowe was picked for Nash, and Jennifer Connelly cast in the important role of Nash's wife, Alicia. Crowe researched the role by watching videos of Nash delivering speeches, and he eventually met Nash himself on the set of the film. The film was shot mostly on location, with several trips made to Princeton university, and Howard shot almost all of it in sequence, despite the added cost and difficulty, to make the character's changes in the film more natural for the actors. Upon the film's release, it received mostly positive reviews, despite the aforementioned controversy, and it would eventually go on to make $170,000,000 on a budget of around $78,000,000.
Beginning in 1947, it tells the story of John Nash, a socially awkward but brilliant Princeton student. While in school he befriends his English roommate Charles (Paul Bettany), after graduation he does research and teaches classes at MIT, where he meets and falls in love with and marries Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), one of his students. He is eventually sought out by government agent Parcher (Ed Harris) to help break secret Russian codes. The more he helps, the more he becomes convinced that Russian spies are trailing him and Alicia; soon his paranoia takes over his life and he is institutionalized for schizophrenia. While in the institution he realizes that both Charles and Parcher were just figments of his imagination.
The interesting thing about this film is that it's almost two films in one: the first film combines a love story about a socially awkward man with a spy thriller, complete with a car chase. And then, once John is diagnosed, it winds up feeling like a classic tale of overcoming addiction; almost a remake of Billy Wilder's THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) with schizophrenia substituted for alcoholism. Really, Goldsman's script hits almost all of the notes found in an addiction story: at first, John is in denial that he even has as a problem, and is forced into an institution, where he is helped out by a tough but supportive doctor (Christopher Plummer), then he hits rock bottom, seems better, relapses, and finally slowly builds his way back to normalcy, aided by a faithful, long suffering wife. Of the two halves of the film, I prefer the first part, especially in the early scenes at Princeton, where it's refreshing to have a story that values intelligence in its hero, and the visualizations of his thought processes are well handled. I also like the fact that it is clearly John's intellect that attracts Alicia to him; it's lovely how, on their first date, he finds shapes for her in the stars. I start having trouble with the film when we first find out that Charles and Parcher are both imaginary; it hurts the plausibility of the film because he spent so much time with both of them, and on repeat viewings it becomes impossible to know just how many scenes are real or just in John's head. It's also one of the big breaks with the real story that the film takes, in that the real John Nash's hallucinations were only auditory, and while I understand that just showing John react to voices in his head wouldn't make for much of a movie, I think the film errs in making his imaginary characters seem so real and giving them so much screen time; it would have worked better if Charles and Parcher remained in the shadows more. I also think that both Bettany and Harris (normally fine actors) often over play their roles, especially in their later scenes when he know they're not real (That said, I think this film handles the imaginary characters reveal better than the overrated FIGHT CLUB). And the second part of the film drags on for too long, with John's inevitable relapse and recovery slowing things down considerably (I also object to the moment where John almost accidentally drowns his infant son; putting a baby in danger is an easy way to get a jolt of out an audience, but I don't think the story here warrants it). Even worse, the film takes so long to get to John winning the Noble prize that it seems like an afterthought, and I would have liked to have known more about just what he did to win the award.
Russel Crowe may have based his performance on the real John Nash, but at times it feels more like he's imitating Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN. Crowe stammers, shuffles, avoids eye contact when talking and wears a vacant stare long before we find out he's schizophrenic; I think he overdoes these mannerisms to the point where his ability to function at all before his breakdown seems unlikely. And Crowe's muscle bound torso seems out of place in a college professor. Still, Crowe does manage to make John likable enough to keep our interest, and the obvious pain he feels on discovering his that Charles and Parcher aren't real is palpable. Jennifer Connelly won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her work here, and in many ways she has a tougher role than Crowe in that Alicia is both his and the audience's main link to reality. More importantly, she really shows the hardship and difficulty of loving and living with a man as troubled as John is effectively; she has a strong scene in which she vents her anger by smashing a mirror, but we always see that she realizes that John's troubles are not his fault. In the real world, Alicia divorced John for several years and then remarried him, but since Howard and Goldsman want this film to be seen as a love story, that break with reality doesn't bother me.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
I think it's clear that I have mixed feelings about this film, and in all honesty, I think all four films that were also nominated for best picture (THE LORD OF THE RINGS:THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, IN THE BEDROOM, MOULIN ROUGE, and GOSFORD PARK) are all better. I also preferred MOMENTO and THE ROYAL TANNENBAUMS. So no, I don't think Ron Howard's pleasant but unspectacular movie deserved to win.