A Beautiful Mind

Twitch, stutter, Oscar, please

Jonathan Romney
Sunday 24 February 2002 01:00
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Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of Nobel-winning mathematician John Nash, sets itself the challenge of making a visual spectacle out of pure thought. You'd be surprised how visual maths can be. As you'll know from Good Will Hunting, mathematicians are prone to sudden fits of inspired scribbling – they'll whip out a piece of chalk and start decorating the nearest wall, blackboard or window with baroque, enigmatic formulae. You can also, of course, show them wandering around, muttering or humming Bach – Russell Crowe's Nash does a lot of this – but it's the inscrutable, scratchy abstractions that really look good on screen. A Beautiful Mind sets out to show that Nash isn't the stuffy bow-tied boffin he looks, but an inspired, lawless creative who covers every available surface with free-form cerebral graffiti – a Kandinsky, a Pollock, an Ornette Coleman of algebra.

This is a film about brooding genius and the sheer anti-social nuttiness of deep thought, rather than, God forbid, the application and drudgery that define most intellectual work. When we first see Nash at Princeton in 1957, meeting his pipe-smoking peers, he is the geek among them, the nervy self-styled prince among commoners. The other geniuses are clubbable, more human – but Nash, in all his abrasive, stand-alone elitism, stands out as the rebel with integrity, refusing to read texts or do coursework. While the others get distracted eyeing girls, Nash cares only about his lonely search for "the governing dynamics". In fact, Nash too is interested in dating, but only insofar as pick-up strategies yield abstractions: he develops a theory of behaviour based on all the guys agreeing not to hit on the blonde. These campus sequences are agreeably silly, the locker-room rivalry resembling Top Gun with algorithms.

Later Nash applies his gifts in the interest of national security. In one extraordinary scene, he's called in to decipher a seemingly random wall of numbers; as he scans them for secret harmonies, Crowe's eyes flicker like Geiger counters and the numbers light up, shifting into glowing patterns. But the power to pull luminous order out of the air has a price: soon Nash's office walls are a cacophony of newsprint, a logician's version of the graphomaniac killer's lair in Seven. The film's message is that the flip side of genius is madness, the reverse of beautiful abstraction an impenetrable mess in a troglodyte's den.

This is just the cosy sort of film you'd expect to scoop up multiple Oscar nominations: the Academy could hardly resist one man's journey through schizophrenia to Nobel success. Nash himself, however, takes second billing to Russell Crowe, whose performance is shamelessly pitched to appeal to the Academy's love of moody dysfunction. His display of shambling, mumbling angst combines the worst excesses of Dustin Hoffman and Billy Bob Thornton, his prime tricks being a basso mutter and an eye-catching nervous twitch that involves him rubbing his forehead, hand flapping ostentatiously at his temple. Crowe is a perfect Hollywood find, a hunk who isn't afraid to make himself look nerdy or drab. But his Nash comes across as inverse machismo: you sense that Crowe is playing the type most alien to him, a type for which he may even feel some contempt.

The film is essentially being sold as a love story, Nash being saved by a long-suffering good woman. In fact, Jennifer Connelly as Nash's wife and ex-student Alicia is the film's only real adult element. Connelly, once the blandest of ingénues, is here as quizzical, robust and silky as Ava Gardner. But that only makes it harder to believe that Alicia would adore this bearish, boorish manchild. The relationship seems less plausible than the similar one in Jerry Lewis's The Nutty Professor.

A Beautiful Mind has been criticised for eliding some of the more contentious aspects of Nash's life, as revealed in Sylvia Nasar's biography, on which it is partly based. We see Nash worrying about the "Red Threat", but the real Nash also entertained anti-Semitic paranoia and bizarre views about racial superiority. His sexuality was more equivocal than the film admits, taking in relationships with men and an arrest for indecent exposure. In fact, this side of Nash is bizarrely sublimated in the film, first into his relationship with his roommate/soulmate, an improbable English hell-raiser (Paul Bettany), then into his political paranoia. In thrall to Ed Harris's dominating G-man, Nash starts giving men suspicious looks at parties, supposedly because he suspects they're secret agents; it actually looks more as though he's cruising them, while a weird encounter with soldiers in a forest could be an after-hours scene on Hampstead Heath. It's been a long time since a film sold on marital romance lent itself so exhaustively to being outed. Howard and Goldsman do take quite a novel approach to dealing with the interior business of Nash's thought processes. Critics are enjoined not to reveal the "twist", such as it is; suffice to say that for much of the film, we see the world very much through Nash's delusional optic. But the result is finally no more than a smart conceit, and the film passes up every opportunity for real insight into the relationship between paranoia, the code-breaking mind and the political imagination of Fifties America.

The film's real agenda is a return to order; it wants to tame Nash's difference and "queerness", whether sexual or intellectual. Howard has it both ways, on one hand, celebrating Nash for being a noble loner, on the other showing his hubris brought low. Ultimately the message is banal and rather repellent: brainwork wrecks your health. This is another of those films, like Iris or Shine, where an intellectual or artistic high-flyer is implicitly punished for over-taxing those synapses. The movies love to celebrate genius, as long as it's tempered with a touch of spectacular, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-we fallibility. A great mind on screen invariably has to be depicted as a walking catastrophe, effectively an idiot savant – and A Beautiful Mind is a prime example of how Hollywood loves the idiot, despises the savant.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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