Emotions by numbers
Even before the opening credits for Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind roll, the extensive previews for the movie have roused echoes of Scott Hicks’ barely five-year-old Shine, the equally fictionalized-but-based-on-truth story of pianist, David Helfgott. While Howard’s film avoids the temptation to “explain” the mental illness that strikes his protagonist (Princeton mathematician, John Nash) via the extensive childhood and adolescence psychiatry-by-numbers scenes in Hick’s film, it’s quickly apparent that the two directors view their raw material the same way. Both indulge an atavistic Romantic idolatry of tortured genius to idealize mental illness as spectacle, a feel-good gladiatorial games of the psyche where the human spirits always triumphs and love always blooms.
Howard’s protagonist is based on the real Princeton mathematician John Nash (played in the film by Russell Crowe). The dazzling working-class scholar from West Virginia revolutionized economic theory in his 20s, married a beautiful and intelligent mathematics undergraduate, Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly), and then lost a high-profile backroom Cold Warrior career to schizophrenia. But, following biopic tradition, scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Howard dwell heavily on the prelude to breakdown, the moment of breakdown and the ultimate triumph over breakdown, while glossing over the intervening decades of genuine anguish in a sequence of emotions-by-numbers impressionistic scenes. Despite the A-list acting firepower, and moments that hint tantalizingly at what this story might have been, A Beautiful Mind reduces both mathematical genius and schizophrenia to reassuring carnivals of containable eccentricity.
At first, though, Goldsman’s script avoids classifying Nash (despite some crashingly obvious musical cues), allowing ambiguity about Nash’s apparent idiosyncrasy: is it a function of how he is or how he is perceived? Sometimes he appears socially maladroit and intellectually isolated because of cultural displacement, his rural brusqueness and unabashed ambition scorned in the Ivy League indolence of gentlemanly competition. Sometimes he weaves across the screen as the muttering loner, drinking, living in the library for days at a time, yet saved from terminal alienation by a self-deprecating wit.
Sometimes his dissociation seems to lie in his monotheistic devotion to mathematics, his absolute faith in the power of numbers to translate chaos into clarity. In these sequences, the movie manages to illuminate both the beauty and humiliating absurdity of uninhibited intellectual obsession. In one scene, Nash is the down-at-heel buffoon mapping the feeding patterns of pigeons in the park. In another, he is the intoxicated artist scrawling mathematical equations across the library’s mullioned windows. Like Nash, like his wife and his friends, the audience is lulled into a kind of perceptual blindness, in which sympathy for Nash’s triumph over his social exclusion, or admiration for his unflagging ambition prevail over awareness of his deeper disintegration. Though Howard and Goldman here craft a conventional set up, they craft it well, with the nice touch of casting Christopher Plummer, an actor who has tried to obliterate Baron von Trapp in a series of roles as urbane sadists, exactly to enigmatic type as either the Russian spy seeking to abduct Nash or the kindly psychiatrist attempting to save his sanity.
Much of the power of these early sequences derives from the physicality of Crowe’s embodiment of Nash. Whether hunching his shoulders after a defeat while playing Go with another student, smirking at a class of baffled undergrads, or sitting, shirt collar unbuttoned at a cluttered desk, Crowe projects an unfocussed but bristling sensuality, all the more tangible in contrast to the slender, fine-boned Connelly, and the archetypally blond and beautiful Paul Bettany (as Nash’s friend, Charles). Ironically, some of the most poignant moments of Crowe’s performance come as the movie abandons Nash as character and starts to invest in Nash as symbol. In this transition lies the kernel of the movie that might have been, the movie that mapped not the sensational, the onset of schizophrenia, but the quotidian, schizophrenia’s grinding day-by-day, year-by-year battles for both Nash and, perhaps more remarkably, the woman who remained his wife.
This transition occupies the scenes that surround Nash’s physical assault on his wife, chilling, because so mundane and domestic, in exposing the way the clash between delusion and reality precipitates violence. As Nash explores his decision to battle his delusions without excessive medication, the audience experiences for the first time the heart of his dilemma, that for him, normalcy is a world populated by familiar people who do not exist. Some are dangerous, such as the figure who incites him to attack his wife and almost precipitates her departure. Some are supportive and loving: as Nash says of one, “He’s been a good friend to me.” With a wry twist of his chin, Crowe adds both bashfulness (as if confessing a love affair) and an adult recognition of genuine loss to the Nash’s confessions, first that he and this delusion have had some good conversations over the years and second, that he’ll miss him.
But this glimpse into the future for Nash and Alicia is never more than a glimpse. Howard opts for time-lapse snapshots of Nash’s subsequent life in Princeton (culminating in the award of the Nobel Prize), Crowe opts for well-costumed and heavily made-up caricature, the delusions pop up in increasingly risible formation, and Alicia disappears completely until the final scenes of the film.
For all his Capraesque aspirations, Howard’s movies never really leave the ground because he never really takes any risks. Mental illness, even mental illness less catastrophic and more amenable to chemical manipulation than schizophrenia, is neither as domesticated nor (heaven help us) as uplifting as this movie claims. Howard could have told the story of John Nash and Alicia Larde as John Cassavetes told the story of Nick and Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence. But instead he played safe, and told one more story of the American dream, where a poor boy can get the girl and the gold, conquer any adversity, even schizophrenia, and not encounter any more anguish than the average multiplex audience can endure on a Saturday afternoon.