If watching Russell Crowe trying to elicit sympathy as a pompous ass for over two hours is your idea of fun, then brother, do I have the movie for you...
A Beautiful Mind is the story of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a brilliant mathematician who is determined to accomplish something academically profound. Beginning with his struggles in graduate school and ending with his reflective twilight years, the film spans a lifetime of trials and tribulations as it documents Nash's genius in personal detail. Pivotal moments in his life include creating a revolutionary theory of economics, falling in love with a beautiful student (Jennifer Connelly), being recruited as a codebreaker by a questionable government operative (Ed Harris), and battling the ravages of schizophrenia.
This movie is a blatant play on emotions via the most generic Hollywood methods. Whether it's Nash's domestic problems with his overly devoted wife or his rousing academic recognition that finishes off the story in a blaze of canned applause, this film is a painfully obvious tear-jerker of the most calculating type. It is therefore strangely ironic that such a formulaic, Tinseltown standard forgot so critical an ingredient: a sympathetic protagonist.
Nash's extreme arrogance is quickly established from the movie's opening scene, forcing Crowe to try to bond with an audience his character would likely find contemptible. Rather than set him up as the misunderstood good guy, the story introduces Nash as a pompous, strutting peacock, then tells you to feel sorry for him just because he's brilliant, but has problems. This could work in a film that experimented more with originality, but it simply fails here. If you're going to resign yourself to making a paint-by-numbers Hollywood melodrama, then at least do it right.
And make no mistake about it: despite its pretense for being a deep character drama, A Beautiful Mind is indeed a formulaic, mainstream concoction. Witness the chemistry between Crowe's self-important professor and Connelly's fetching student vixen: he's the world's most callous bastard, yet even he cannot resist the charms of the smart and sassy young woman who "teaches him a thing or two about life!" And lo and behold, she's able to immediately see past his arrogance and loathing of human beings, thus getting to the passionate heart she just knows is beneath that rough exterior! This is as original as the "hooker with a heart of gold" caricature.
With competent stars thrust into such bland roles, it is odd that most critics won't stop raving about the acting. Connelly gave a much more compelling performance in Requiem For A Dream, and Ed Harris is wasted as a character who figures more into the movie's trailer than the actual movie--the subplot about Nash's work as a codebreaker is sadly a minor piece of the puzzle. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe, often praised as a "thespian chameleon," is merely adequate for this role, not outstandingly convincing (I kept waiting for him to yell, "I am a mathematician--what possible difference can I make!"). Those who have lopped such acclaim on him seem to forget his accomplishments in The Insider--now that was a hell of a "chameleon" role!
If the movie excels at anything, it's the ability to convey Nash's obsession. It begins in casual, mundane ways--like Nash neglecting all else in favor of his work. But it eventually builds into a disturbing crescendo, as delusions take hold and Nash begins to see conspiracies everywhere. His work area being plastered from floor to ceiling in notes was also a nice touch that really blurred the line between lunacy and genius.
But such elements are smothered by storytelling flaws. The pacing is extremely uneven, with the movie feeling very slow at times, then suddenly lurching forward chronologically in clumsy intervals both large and small. Worst of all, this movie has decided to embrace a trend that is becoming all too commonplace in Hollywood: dropping the ball and saying, "Oops! It was all a dream and/or hallucination. Tee-hee!" This is acceptable on the rare occasion that it's done well, but A Beautiful Mind doesn't pull it off in that masterful way that makes you realize the answers were staring you in the face from the beginning. Instead, it simply misleads viewers for a cheap twist at the halfway mark.
A Beautiful Mind has a few things going for it, but it's largely a mediocre endeavor that is dragged south of average by generic characters and Hollywood gimmicks. And it's far from being the crowning accomplishment in the careers of Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, and director Ron Howard. Indeed, the most interesting thing about this film is figuring out where all the Oscar buzz is coming from.
Rating: 4 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)