A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Three-and-a-Half

Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind,” contains a visual treat that I won’t soon forget. I’m talking about a scene a little over halfway into the film, where our protagonist John–played by Russell Crowe (of “Gladiator” fame)–sits in the kitchen with his wife Alicia, played by Jennifer Connelly (“Requiem for a Dream”, “Blood Diamond”). He’s beginning to fall back into his disorder, and sits at a table, playing with a strange suction cup unicorn toy. Alicia is starting to grow increasingly more frustrated with John, and steps over to the refrigerator.

Here is the captivating image that I first wrote of.

John and Alicia are mentally separated from one another.

John and Alicia are mentally separated from one another.

There is a clear divide in their marriage, and even though it is portrayed so clearly on-screen, we are provided with a powerful, yet subtle reminder here. A wall literally separates the two of them, their backs are turned to one another, and although they are having a conversation, they are both concentrating on different things.

This is the kind of provoking imagery that Ron Howard has put together for his audience, along with ASC Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men”, “Skyfall”, “Shawshank Redemption”).

I had only heard of “A Beautiful Mind” when I was growing up, but never took any action in seeing it until twelve years after its entry into the world wide world of film. I glimpsed two scenes from the film while taking an adolescent psychology course in college. I also acted out a scene cold in a production course I took. If you haven’t yet seen it, then I have likely sufficiently ruined a good portion of the story by my review thus far. For that, I apologise, and you are in a situation which is nearly identical to mine in college. Needless to say, I spent the remainder of that day sulking, knowing that the plot to this 2001 gem was totally laid bare before my eyes, but I digress.

“A Beautiful Mind” follows the true, yet flawed, story of a brilliant mathematician, named John Nash, who struggles to live with schizophrenia. We begin our excavation into his life starting first at his entry into Princeton, and our journey ends with Nash in old age. As grumpy and–for the most part, socially inept–an old fart as he was in his younger years. Regardless of his laughable social ability, he makes lifelong friends (and gets hitched) despite his strange behavior; even though he’s kind of a jerk. He is quite lovable. Whether this is the beauty of Crowe’s fantastic work as an actor, or the tediousness of a well-designed script, I will leave that decision up to you.

Even though we focus mostly on Nash, we do spend a good portion of time with Alicia. I must say that I truly appreciated her character’s devotion to John. Unfortunately, many times in film, a love interest is thrown in as an afterthought to spice up the sex appeal, but here is not the case (although, Connelly looks somewhat stunning as an older woman). What I admired most about her screen time is her unrelenting sense of hope. Granted, she does grab their child and begins driving away at one point (but you would too if your husband nearly drowned the little tot.) Alicia inspires a true feeling of redemption for Nash’s character, and she sees it through until the end. A marvelous picture of the difficulties of marriage and endless perseverance through it, I assure you.

Of course, Howard would never let his audience go without extra fun, and this comes in the form of actors: Christopher Plummer, Paul Bettany, and Ed Harris, who play respectively: Nash’s psychiatrist, Charles (one of Nash’s friendly hallucinations), and Parcher (a government agent hallucination, hell-bent on pushing Nash to decipher non-existent Russian codes from various publications and magazines.)

Something that Howard does excruciatingly well here is not spoon-feeding the story to his audience. The plot isn’t simple, even though the “Fight Club-esque” reveal of “multiple personalities” is somewhat predictable; if you know much about the film. It definitely isn’t a tidy film presented in a gift-wrapped box. There are a few short scenes that make you just a bit queasy to help you understand more fully just how emotionally and physiologically painful Nash’s condition was on himself and those around him. It is necessary in my opinion.

There is a bit of cheese, in the form of a special pen gifting scene directed towards Nash, representing the level of respect that he had gained over the years, again, despite his medical condition. To explain the symbolism of these “pens,” one should simply watch the film to understand. Very shortly afterwards, Nash gives his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. As he gazes out into the audience, he says, “I have made the most important discovery of my career – the most important discovery of my life. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reasons can be found. I am only here tonight because of you…” His eyes fixate on Alicia, as he toys with a pocket square in his coat; a nod to an earlier moment in the film.

These moments are excusably cheesy, and serve to fully send home the idea that if it was not for the persistence of Nash to push through his disease in his fashion, and if it was not for Alicia’s complete devotion to him as a wife, he likely would have driven himself mad and lived in an asylum for the remainder of his life. Fortunately, this is not the case, and in light of his random outbursts at home and on-campus at Princeton, he is able to live out a strange, yet somewhat regular life.

We feel only the utmost sympathy for John and Alicia, and by pushing against all odds, they find victory. We love these stories, don’t we? The academy loved it enough to present it with four Oscars, including Best Picture. Isn’t that nifty?

The only blotch I found on this wonderful tale is the true story of John Nash. In real life, he didn’t actually begin experiencing hallucinations until after his marriage with Alicia. He also had a child with a previous girlfriend, and Alicia eventually divorced him and married someone else. They remained very close friends however, and she provided him a place to stay, and helped him through his disorder. A few Hollywood modifications, to be sure, but its always a little sad when the movies are prettier than real life, isn’t it?

A humbling response is knowing that Nash was, and still is an astonishingly brilliant man. He still keeps office hours at Princeton, and he still walks to school everyday. An impossibly smart and beautiful mind. And hey, for kicks, here’s his dissertation http://www.princeton.edu/mudd/news/faq/topics/Non-Cooperative_Games_Nash.pdf

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2 thoughts on “A Beautiful Mind (2001)

  1. I thought the movie was very well done, although it obviously left out a lot of details from Nash’s life, as one would expect. One thing you didn’t mention there at the end, (so I can only assume you aren’t aware), is that John and Alicia actually remarried in 2001.

  2. I was not aware, so thank you for pointing that out. I must have overlooked it while writing my review.

    It is only necessary for Hollywood to modify reality within the realms of filmmaking. Luckily there are many films out there (this being a fine example) that are able to balance truth and fabrication in a healthy way.

    Thanks for commenting!

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