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.