**/**** Image A- Sound B Extras A-
starring Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany
screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the book by Sylvia Nasar
directed by Ron Howard
by Walter Chaw Mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. gained his reputation in theoretical economics and/by discerning patterns in impossibly complicated numerical models. A Beautiful Mind, a film based very loosely upon his life, likewise deals with theoretical economics (in regards to Christmas box office), but offers bland predictable patterns in place of complexity. For example, because this is DreamWorks'/Universal's Oscar tentpole, the running time falls safely in the "adult contemporary holiday respectable" range of 130-145 minutes, and it features a big name actor in a role that requires him to be some combination of mentally disabled (I Am Sam, Forrest Gump, Rain Man), insane (As Good As It Gets), or that delicate combination of the two: a genius (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester).
It will feature an unlikely love story with a beautiful and constant woman (sort of a stultifying "beauty and king gimp" conceit), a few half-hearted attempts at portraying the world from the "special" protagonist's literal perspective (by using a jittery handheld camera or some similarly unenlightening gimmick), and end on a high note tinged with the bittersweet for that vital splash of lingering "importance." A Beautiful Mind's grab for the year-end brass ring is further benefited by Ron Howard, one of Hollywood's most reliably bland directors of feel-good claptrap (remember Backdraft, Far and Away, Apollo 13?--you won't remember A Beautiful Mind, either). To paraphrase Will Rogers, Howard's never met a violin swell, standing ovation, or hackneyed symbolic gesture he didn't like, and A Beautiful Mind is stuffed to bursting with soulless tearjerks.
A Beautiful Mind opens with Princeton undergrad John Nash (Russell Crowe) discovering the basis for the work that defined his life in a strategy for picking up a cute blonde in a bar. A minor surprise, then, that his chosen mate resolves herself to be brunette graduate student Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), a student in a class that Nash teaches a few years later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: minor for Nash because Connelly is unbelievably beautiful, major for Alicia because Nash is beyond a shadow of a doubt an antisocial fruitbar. She's so pretty, in fact, that it appears that Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have decided any acknowledgement of her brilliance as a graduate student in mathematics at MIT is much less interesting than leering at her ass as she leans out a window to charm construction workers, running around wearing tight sweaters in sudden rainstorms, and being seduced by such classic lines as, "I would gladly continue doing platonic things as is the custom, but in truth all I really want is to have intercourse with you."
By the end of the film we don't even know what she does for a living, although it's her labour that supports Nash and child; her only moment of regret for getting the short end of life's stick comes during a tantrum she throws when Nash rejects her sexual advances. Gorgeous, horny, breadwinning, suckling, smart but not castrating, Alicia is Mother Teresa in the body of a game show hostess, finally registering as a person only because Connelly mines what little humanity there lay at the core of this pin-up saint. The actress has been in better (Waking the Dead, Requiem for a Dream) and deserves better--if one good thing comes of A Beautiful Mind (besides spurring an interest in the infinitely more interesting source material), it will be Connelly's increased visibility.
Meanwhile, steely Ed Harris makes his second appearance of the year as a Nazi of some kind (the other being in Enemy at the Gates), a "man in black" who recruits Nash as a codebreaker in search of Russian agents smuggling parts for a portable nuclear bomb into the United States. His Mr. Parcher reminds a good deal of the evil doctors in William Burroughs's Naked Lunch; between this character and James Horner's score (a rip-off of Howard Shore's work with David Cronenberg), A Beautiful Mind invites undeserved comparisons to Cronenberg's The Fly and his adaptation of Naked Lunch: reclusive genius finds love even as he disintegrates into the madness of his ambition.
The material is dark, of that there can be no question, but every attempt is made to transform the horror of progressive mental illness into something dismissively funny (after a violent twitch, Nash deadpans, "Is there any chance you can forget that I just did that?") or so lovingly softened that it ignores issues that arise with children of violently unpredictable parents. (After Nash almost kills his baby, it's spirited away to "mother's," returning a few scenes later as a silent pre-teen walking to school. Later, we learn that he attends Harvard.) Throughout, a lucky handkerchief serves as a maladroit and lazy symbol of his unvarying relationship with wife/mother/whore Alicia, brandished Braveheart-style at key emotional moments to ramp up the sentimental factor to nosebleed heights. If Ginsberg defined a "naked lunch" as a junkie at dawn "looking for an angry fix," A Beautiful Mind is tailor-made for consumers of mainstream hokum looking for a languid fix.
Crowe's portrayal of Nash is initially engaging for its crass belligerence and unintelligible West Virginia cum Wellington (Foghorn Leghorn cum Crocodile Dundee?) mumbled invectives; it degenerates when Crowe loses the accent and affects the twitches and jerks of movie disability (think Steve Martin post-possession in All of Me simultaneously channelling Ratso Rizzo). It isn't so much a courageous performance as a carefully calculated one that lacks the virile anvil strike of his turns in Romper Stomper, L.A. Confidential, and Gladiator, nor is there any trace of the tortured everyman turn he wore to powerful effect in The Insider. Crowe has the potential to be an uncontrollable method animal à la Brando (he's already got the off-screen temperament down pat)--he needs, however, to avoid stunt performances better suited for devalued actors who might not otherwise earn recognition but for their willingness to die of sad wasting diseases, lose/gain great amounts of weight, or play retarded shrimp farmers.
A combination of Aronofsky's Pi (doing the "math = god = madness" equation much better, I should add), Good Will Hunting, Marathon Man, and eventually Drop Dead Fred, A Beautiful Mind ultimately outsmarts itself by blurring reality and fiction so awkwardly that when a pivotal uplift sequence occurs towards the end, one is left wondering for a time whether that, too, is some kind of delusion. Howard et al are too desperate to pull one over (and over) on us: A Beautiful Mind becomes the movie that cried wolf. If anything can happen, nothing is surprising--it is that struggle with the basic rules of narrative in narrative filmmaking that makes Howard a poor choice for fantasy (Willow, The Grinch) and an even worse choice for serious drama. A Beautiful Mind isn't as bad as say, The Majestic, and there are moments of engaging camp that are comfortable in the way of an old pair of slippers, but if a film must be made of an honourable man's difficult life (see also Men of Honor), then it should be done so as more than a shill for a few devalued nominations and a play for the fickle attentions of middlebrow moviegoers looking for an easy cause they can champion.
by Bill Chambers I've procrastinated writing this review because, frankly, the thought of having to explore the special features of A Beautiful Mind's "Awards Edition" DVD sounded too much like real work, considering my complete apathy towards this year's Best Picture winner. Indeed, walking through this 2-disc set was a chore--but one marked by a revelation so great that I feel vindicated. (See below.) On A Beautiful Mind's transfer: Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (and fullscreen in a separate package that Universal seems to be pushing harder), the film sports a crisp, clean, colour-controlled image. Roger Deakins's cinematography is subject to slight edge-enhancement, but it's nothing unforgivable. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track (no room for a DTS alternative) may as well be 2.0 surround--this is not a lively mix, not even during the car chase. I was flat disappointed in the sound.
The first platter contains the film, a pair of not-terrible commentaries, and more. One yak-track is by Howard, the other Goldsman, and that the two weren't combined in post to patch over each other's dead spots is a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, they contribute distinct insights--too bad that neither of them addressed the impossibility of the abovementioned vehicular pursuit with scrutiny or self-criticism, instead justifying it through the overused term "point of view." Also on board Disc One is a block of eighteen deleted scenes (prefaced by an audio introduction from Howard) with optional commentary from the director, who made good cutting choices. (The workprint condition of these omissions, incidentally, combined with their grease-pencil markings, leads me to believe that A Beautiful Mind was edited by hand rather than in a computer, which would account for a certain classical rhythm the film has.) Rounding out the disc: production notes; cast and filmmaker biographies/filmographies; and ROM-enabled Total Axess content that goes live on Tuesday, June 25th.
The second platter is mostly comprised of featurettes. In "A Beautiful Partnership" (5 mins.) producer Brian Grazer and Howard, co-owners of Imagine Entertainment, take turns performing fellatio whilst revealing that another major director was up for A Beautiful Mind, forcing Howard to beg onto his own company's project. "Development of the Screenplay (Inside a Writer's Mind)" is an 8-minute interview with Goldsman in which he makes the unfortunate admission that a clichéd scene between Crowe and Connelly was rewritten 75 times--unfortunate in that he takes pride in the number. "Meeting John Nash" (8 mins.) offers Nash explaining his theory of equilibrium to pupil Howard. "Accepting the Nobel Prize" (2 mins.) shows the real-life Nash at the 1994 Nobel ceremony, sans sentimental movie monologue. Ron Howard summarizes how the roles of John and Alicia were cast in "Casting Russell Crowe & Jennifer Connelly" (6 mins.). Greg Cannom, Crowe's make-up man on The Insider, expounds on the silicone appliances he developed to subtly mature Crowe as John in "The Process of Age Progression" (7 mins.).
Five "Storyboard Comparisons" divulge how a quintet of scenes (two of which wound up in the trim bin) looked in storyboard form, with a video introduction. The star of the DVD set, if you ask me, is the next short, "Creation of the Special Effects" (11 mins.). Therein, Digital Domain's Kevin Mack demonstrates just how far computer graphics have come--and I assure you, it's a lot farther than Liquid Yoda. The near-drowning of the Nash baby, for instance, was accomplished through computer-compositing; leaves were put on bare trees for sequences shot in the wintertime that were supposed to convey a summer setting; pigeons were fabricated in A Beautiful Mind's cleverest moment... I truly am a CGI born-again after watching this doc.
"Scoring the Film" (6 mins.) asks composer James Horner to analyze his work on A Beautiful Mind; a puff-piece HBO special (the 23-minute "Inside A Beautiful Mind"), a list of mental health organizations and their contact numbers, a selection of pressroom interviews from this year's Academy Awards, a Universal commercial, trailers for A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, The Family Man, K-Pax, and Patch Adams, and--something I've never seen before--DVD previews of the latter four titles cap off the Awards Edition DVD of A Beautiful Mind. Originally published: June 21, 2002.
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