A Beautiful Mind
As Best Picture Oscar winners go, is there a more obvious example of a mediocre, heartwarming film serving up a fast-food illusion of depth and profundity? In a case of the bland leading the bland, Ron Howard directed Akiva Goldsman script, resulting in one of the most fatuous representations of mental illness to make it to the big screen. No wonder the Academy went wild for it.
I’ve said that I don’t think the mark of a film based on a historical incident or figure should be its faithfulness but, rather, its dramatic integrity. A Beautiful Mind is as good an example as any of failure at this. The film diverges significantly from John Nash’s experiences, both in terms of his life (be it his divorce and remarriage, alleged homosexual relationships, child from an earlier relationship, the mawkishly sentimental “captain, my captain” pen giving scene) and illness (he did not experience visual hallucinations, only aural, thought he was in contact with extra-terrestrials, experienced anti-Semitic episodes and took no medication from 1970 onwards), but the motivation for this is of the least laudable kind. Nash’s life is to be rendered palatable and anonymously heroic, with all the hard edges and dramatic meat scraped off.
As such, I’m sure there was a good film to be made from Nash’s troubled life. But reducing it to the most trite “triumph over adversity” formula serves no one but the moneymen. It’s not as if Howard and Goldsman persevere in ensuring the audience understands why the Nash equilibrium became so important; indeed, following the most bland of visual explanations for how Nash came up with the theory, Howard throws any interest in it away. In every case, Howard renders the workings of Nash’s mind in with an astonishingly patronising “madness for dummies” approach, which may just betray how Ronnie actually thinks. He also liberally sprinkles fairy dust on top; this man’s mind is so magical it requires the wondrousness of James Horner’s emotive piano to hammer home the point.
Goldsman, infamously, penned Batman & Robin before apparently redeeming himself with an Oscar win for this script. Yet nothing he has written since (save for his small screen work on Fringe) has suggested a man of hidden talents. His solution for telling Nash’s story (keeping the reality of his illness from both him and the viewer until a crucial moment) is fine if you’re disinterested in really understanding the man; if you’re cynical enough to use a twist structure as “shock treatment” for the viewer, to alert them to his mental state, you really shouldn’t be surprised at how your story comes up short in numerous other respects. As it is the sub-Fight Club element is plain cheap; like everything here it testifies to how low the bar has been set.
Tom Cruise was apparently lobbying for the part of Nash, but his previous form with Howard didn’t seem to curry sufficient favour and Russell Crowe scored the role. I’m not sure Cruise could have pulled it off, even given his experience with old pro Hoffman on Rain Man to draw on (by that comparison, I’m not foolishly comparing autism with mental illness but drawing attention to roles where the physical difference is the first thing you see, and tends to attract awards recognition – another example would be Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot). Certainly, Crowe gives a horribly mannered performance. There’s never any doubt that this is an actor trying to approximate the behaviour of someone who is schizophrenic, rather than “being” the role. Crowe was superb in his physical transformation for The Insider a few years previously, but Howard encourages only the broadest and most cartoonish version of Nash. The director is so unsubtle that, with the trio of “friends” he sees around every corner and the constant tinkling music, you’d think he was taking the piss if you didn’t know better.
The one bright spot is Jennifer Connelly as Nash’s wife. Somehow she finds a truthfulness and substance that lends the film a weight it scarcely deserves. She anchors Crowe’s flailing gurning and more than deserved her Oscar (both Crowe and Connelly appear in Goldsman’s upcoming directorial debut, Winter’s Tale).
For a while there, Howard was Hollywood’s brightest star of journeyman directors. His stylistic fingerprints are minimal, aside from an overpowering sense of well-meaning and an absence of intellectual curiosity. He has good, wholesome tastes and runs in the fastest opposite direction to anything provocative. But in the decade since Mind, he’s done little of merit (during the decade prior to it, there were a couple of above average movies like Apollo 13 and Ransom). Arguably the man who massacred the Grinch, and inflicted two crappy Robert Langdon “thrillers” on audiences has lost even the touch that ensured undemanding but serviceable fare. And Crowe’s steer cleared of anything stretching himself since (perhaps wisely), his vocal chords excepted (see A Good Year and Les Mis). As for Oscar, it is as poor an arbiter of quality as ever but even more so when it comes to sentimentalised disability.