A beautiful prize-winner

Hard to believe Ron Howard’s 2001 A Beautiful Mind is going on 20 years old. I ran across it recently on a streaming service and settled in to watch the whole thing, all in a gulp. Verdict after two decades: it’s not a great movie.

Though it scored Best Picture and Best Director, A Beautiful Mind is a shallow and almost-but-not-quite exploitative take on mental illness as it was manifested in John Nash, a Nobel-winning mathematician whose work had great influence in economics and other fields. Russell Crowe plays Nash in a performance that probably should have gotten him a second Oscar. But the film itself is the purest example of Oscar bait I think I’ve ever seen.

Here is a film that portrays the main character’s schizophrenia as some kind of noir-ish spy drama. Nash imagines himself on a secret mission for the government, browsing thousands of periodicals for embedded code words. Howard deliberately blurs the line between Nash’s waking and dreaming, but winks at the audience by casting Ed Harris and Paul Bettany as two recognizable avatars of the disease. (Whenever they appear, the disease is again trying to encroach on Nash’s psyche.)

I’m not sure this is how mental illness actually works. But it is a convenient gimmick for a high-end commercial film, and that’s exactly how it comes across here. The whole movie is gimmicky.

In predictable biopic format, the film covers 30-40 years in the life of its subject; Crowe plays youthful Nash and old Nash. And, in irritating Hollywood form, he plays old Nash in Old Man Makeup. This is the worst gimmick of all. But the film has to employ makeup artists in its bid for Oscar glory.

The film allegedly plays fast and loose with the facts surrounding Nash’s life, whitewashing certain aspects of it for dramatic/box-office considerations. I can sort of understand Hollywood doing that, but if it is true that Nash’s real-life wife was non-White, then why not cast a non-White actress instead of super-white Jennifer Connelly? She’s fine in the role, but a decision like that would never, ever fly today. Look at the backlash against Ghost in the Shell, for example, which cast Caucasian Scarlet Johannsen as a Japanese character.

A Beautiful Mind is in most ways a decent if bland film. It contains the absolute bare minimum of memorably or even competently-composed shots. My biggest problem with it is that it makes a serious illness “entertaining,” all in the blatant quest for awards glory. At the end of the film, when Howard cuts to a wide shot of a grateful, appreciative, applauding audience, I thought perhaps he had already jumped ahead to Oscar night. But no, it was only Crowe in Old Man Makeup, accepting Nash’s Nobel. The movie is recognition-and-awards hungry. After Nash gets his prize, Howard rolls credits. Turns out, that was the only point, after all.

Who is Forrest Gump?

Forrest Gump presents a dilemma. Is it still appropriate to enjoy this movie in light of, well, the past 10 years?

The movie was a huge hit and cultural phenomenon in 1994, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Tom Hanks) in a year that saw Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, The Lion King, Speed, and Natural Born Killers. (It was a very good year.) The film spawned about a million catchphrases (“life is like a box of chocolate”), sold tons of merchandise and launched Bubba Gump Shrimp. You literally could not move without bumping into something Forrest Gump-related. No other movie really stood a chance against it.

I remember seeing the film on opening weekend with a packed and primed audience. It was one of those movies you couldn’t hear the dialogue in one scene for the audience (and myself) still laughing from the previous scene. Yet there were plenty of moments where the audience fell into a hushed silence as Forrest reeled from one life lesson or another. It played us like a piano, and we all walked out feeling we’d seen something significant. My mother summed it up this way: “Tom Hanks can do anything.”

Yeah, Tom Hanks can do anything, including making a character with no personality or agency appealing. It is perhaps because of him that the movie succeeds as well as it does, because his performance holds the same note, plus a few subtle variations, from beginning to end. The film covers 40 years in American “history,” but director Robert Zemeckis spares Hanks the indignity of “old man” makeup. No, Hanks depicts his aging through subtleties in his acting, which, as far as I am concerned, are too nuanced to be described.

The movie itself is not so subtle. It regards Forrest as a superhero, an unchanging, unyielding rock of innocence. Though Zemeckis puts Hanks through every conceivable historical situation of that era (Vietnam, Watergate, Civil Rights Movement, etc.), Forrest never truly understands what he’s witnessing or going through. Let’s say that he is “intellectually challenged” or “not all there.” Yet he’s able to function in virtually any environment, make moral choices, train to become a killer, accept military promotions, invest money, make business decisions, operate a shrimp boat, and, eventually, become a husband, father, and media celebrity, all without speaking in anything other than a childish monotone. We all appreciated the joke that Forrest had an extraordinary lucky streak that got him through every major event in history, but is there anything more to Forrest Gump than a simple joke?

If there is, it isn’t pleasant. The film begins with one of its more uproarious (in 1994) jokes: the fact that Forrest was named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. There’s even a faked shot where Hanks, on horseback, dons a hood and robe and leads a charge of Klansmen. “Sometimes,” Forrest intones, “folks do thangs that don’t make no sense.” Well, OK, but does Forrest understand that he’s named after a violent racist? And is the movie really perpetuating Forrest’s cultural heritage? It does, after all, end with Forrest Sr. seeing Forrest Jr. off to school on the same bus he himself rode as a child (a way down in the Deep South). The film begins with a shocking confession and then proceeds to tell the story of an “innocent” white Supremacist who “bumbles” his way through one “lucky accident” after another.

The film perpetuates stereotypes. It is loaded with black house servants, even making a running gag out of them. Forrest’s best friend, Bubba, is black, but is almost as “backwards” or (OK) “retarded” as Forrest. Authority is a force to be obeyed and respected; dissenters or protesters are a bunch of hypocritical scumbags. Forrest succeeds because A) he never really leaves the place of his birth and B) he shuts his mouth and follow the rules, letting others make crucial decisions for him. He is the quintessential guy who “shat twice and fell back in it.” He never really has to lift a finger.

Yes, the movie is funny and nonlinear and well-made. But it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Who or what exactly is Forrest? A lucky idiot? A con man? Do I detect stirrings of the MAGA movement in all those red hats, mini-cults and bowing and scraping to authority? How exactly did Jenny conveniently die, just as Forrest Jr. appears on the scene? What about that scene where Forrest decides to order the destruction of her childhood home (we see the bulldozer from over his shoulder, without dialogue)? What exactly does Forrest have to say about Vietnam? Is there a secret Forrest, putting on pads in the locker room, training with his M-16, making deals with media personalities, ruthlessly managing his millions? That is a character I’d like to see. How much like Donald Trump would he seem?

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