Going by nothing more than description, a love story about the life of a schizophrenic economics professor would not be my first choice for a night at the movies. Throw in Ron Howard as the director, Russell Crowe as the aforementioned mad professor, and Ed Harris as a shadowy government agent, and I'm starting to change my mind. Even with all that, however, I only went to see Beautiful Mind because there was nothing else on. (I mean, is anyone out there really interested in seeing Kung Pow: Enter the Fist? I didn't think so.) Boy, was I surprised.
A Beautiful Mind is a good bet for the best movie I saw all year. It transcends it's mental illness story, its love story, and its conspiracy story to become greater than the sum of its parts. Crowe plays John Nash, a real-life Nobel winner in the field of economics. The story begins in the early 50's with a young Nash fresh into graduate school at Princeton University desperately searching for an original idea that will distinguish himself from his peers. After coming up with a revolutionary economic theory, Nash wins a coveted spot working for a defense contractor. Here, while sidelineing as a professor, he meets the gorgeous student played by Jennifer Connelly, and falls in love. It is here as well, on a wave of Cold War paranoia, that we meet Ed Harris, a mysterious G-Man who enlists Nash as a codebreaker. In order to stop an atomic bomb from being smuggled into the US, Nash is to dig through reams of popular magazines looking for hidden messages in advertisements and articles. As he descends further and further into his project, he becomes more and more suspicious and frightened, leading Connelly to finally have him committed. What follows is a beautiful mosaic of love, strength, and shocking surprises that I won't ruin by revealing here. Suffice it to say it's definitely worth your time.
Russell Crowe turns in another superb performance as Nash. He has another good shot at an Oscar this year, especially since he won the Golden Globe. His acting is actually much better in this film than in his previous win, Gladiator; he succeeds in portraying mental illness with sympathy and compassion without dampening the harrowing aspects. And he does it all quietly. He doesn't spend the whole movie ranting and drooling. There are none of the standard gibbering straightjacketed fiends or dark, creepily antispetic mental hospitals that you usually associate with films like this. His performance is an incredibly gentle look at a frightening state of mind, and it's already been heralded by numerous psychiatric organizations. Also superb is Jennifer Connelly as Nash's long suffering, yet eternally supportive wife. Connelly is fast changing the perception that she is simply a B-level actress in much the same way Kim Basinger did with L.A. Confidential. With excellent reviews for her role as a desperate drug addict in Requiem for a Dream, and with a Globe for this film, Connelly should be able to have the luxury of being choosy about the parts she takes.
Also winning rave reviews is director Ron Howard, who has matured incredibly throughout his career. After over forty years in Hollywood, Howard has cultivated many relationships that have allowed him to work with the best of the best. Starting with relatively silly comedies and actioners like Splash and Willow, and moving on to bigger and better projects like Apollo 13 and Far and Away, Howard has always been a crowd pleaser, but has generally been ignored at award time. Now he is looking at a guaranteed nomination for Best Director, and a good chance at a win. The ease with which he can gain great performances is evident throughout his entire catalog, and especially so here. One of his great strengths is the ability to portray real drama and emotion without alienating his audience or letting the story lag. One of the best examples of this is in the highly underrated The Paper. If you haven't seen this one, you should go out rent it tonight. Look for an early glimpse of George Costanza as a deranged city employee.
A Beautiful Mind is many things: a love story, a schizophrenia tale, a thriller, but these are not what make it great. What makes it great is what it is not: pat, simplistic, or pandering. A smart script, wonderful performances, and a master at the helm all add up to one thing: a beautiful movie. Grade: A+
A Beautiful Mind is rated PG-13 for language and adult themes.
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