Helplessly drawn to the spectacle of tragic genius yet routinely thwarted by its abstract dimensions, the Hollywood inspirational biopic has over the years acquired an air of numb, dutiful redundancy befitting a Christmastime obligation. By all appearances, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind marches in lockstep through the supernova ascent, calamitous flameout, and odds-defying recovery of math whiz John Forbes Nash Jr., who pioneered a revolutionary approach to game theory in his Princeton doctoral thesis, won a Nobel for it at age 66, and in between, struggled for nearly three decades with debilitating bouts of paranoid schizophrenia. But the movie—vaguely based on Sylvia Nasar’s 1998 biography of the same title—is not altogether what it seems. For reasons best left undiscussed, it eventually comes into focus as a chilling portrait of interior torment. Suffice to say the film’s dramatic license seems sneakier and more audacious in retrospect.
A Beautiful Mind opens with the wunderkind newly arrived at Princeton’s mid-century hotbed of number-crunching prodigies. All gauche self-importance and oblivious condescension, he apparently stood out as a social maladroit even among fellow math geeks. Russell Crowe’s embodiment of the pretty-boy genius (“handsome as a god,” as an awed colleague puts it in Nasar’s book) is a feat of concentrated detail and (spanning as it does some four decades) remarkably convincing makeup. As in The Insider, Crowe tunnels into character via body language—imagining an eloquent vocabulary of tics, fixating on Nash’s wary eyes and restless hands, his anxious grimaces and bashfully suppressed smiles.
The film itself derives its broad conception of Nash from Nasar’s exhaustively researched biography, but much of the unexpectedly crafty screenplay by Akiva Goldsman (responsible for the Joel Schumacher abominations A Time to Kill and Batman & Robin) is pure fiction. The professional apex of Nash’s Princeton years—the game-theory breakthrough called the Nash equilibrium—is whimsically distilled to a eureka moment while he tries to devise a pickup strategy in a bar. The movie also omits some of the book’s juicier details: relationships with other men, a child out of wedlock, an arrest for indecent exposure. The biopic version of Nash’s wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), is cobbled together from Long-Suffering Spouse clichés; in real life, the Nashes had a considerably rockier marriage. (Alicia filed for divorce in the early ’60s—she took John back some years later, after the onset of his illness, and they only remarried last summer.) Nash worked briefly for the RAND think tank; the movie turns his code-cracking assignments (under the instructions of Ed Harris’s shady Pentagon operative) into a major subplot and milks it for Strangelovean paranoia. It becomes clear, though, that the liberties taken by Goldsman’s script are not merely in the service of conforming unwieldy lives to clean narrative arcs.
Howard’s foursquare direction is a perfect fit for Goldsman’s disorienting legerdemain, though he defers far too often to James Horner’s insistent, asphyxiating score (this is easily the worst-sounding movie of the season). It’s a shame that the filmmakers pay such scant attention to the nature of Nash’s work—the cruelest irony here is that the man who finessed a mathematical theory of rational behavior should succumb to a downward spiral of insanity. Nash claims that he reasoned his way out of his schizophrenia, by enforcing a “diet of the mind.” But the film doesn’t monitor his convalescence with as much interest as his decline—indeed the final third seems wan and mechanical. It’s doubly frustrating that after flirting with (and even upending) biopic conventions for much of its length, A Beautiful Mind finally gives in to them so readily.
On balance, though, the portrayal of mental illness is unusually discreet. The voices in Nash’s head were more outlandish than the ones depicted in the film—according to Nasar’s book, he thought aliens were transmitting messages to him and he sought to form a single world government. While the idea of tailoring its subject’s state of mind for narrative convenience raises its own set of ethical quandaries, the movie illustrates with poignant (if reductive) clarity the awful no-exit paradox of a paranoid delusion—that its most incapacitating aspect is its terrifying realness.
Barely cognizant of any reality outside the soundstage Manhattan of Friends, the club-footed time-travel romp Kate and Leopold is credited to director James Mangold, but the project’s true auteur is the nose-scrunching, arm-flapping mass of self-adoring yuppie neuroses known as Meg Ryan. This being a romantic comedy, Ryan’s Kate is a workaholic New Yorker in desperate need of priority realignment. She lives downstairs from her ex, Stuart (Liev Schreiber), in an apartment that opens out onto a spacious fire escape where “Moon River” blares nightly. Her only distinguishing trait is that she has the perfect job for a Miramax protagonist. She’s a market researcher who makes “boring movies shorter.” But not this one.
Having traversed cyberspace to hook up with Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail, Ryan now has to enter the fourth dimension to nab hot 19th-century duke Hugh Jackman. Meaning she has to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge into a portal above the East River. The shabby metaphysics and complete absence of internal logic are perhaps meant to charm, but only add to the eye-gouging irritant factor. For instance, when Jackman’s Leopold, who hasn’t yet invented the elevator, follows great-great-grandson Stuart back to the present day, Stuart consequently falls down an elevator shaft. But why would there be a shaft in the first place? And why does it give no one pause that, if Kate’s destiny is to marry Leopold, Stuart’s ex-girlfriend would then be his great-great-grandmother? (An incest-anxiety time-travel template already exists, after all—see Back to the Future.)
In the end, of course, even the distance of 100-odd years can’t keep Meg from snaring her man, but what other impediments can screenwriters throw in her path now that she’s smashed the space-time barrier? Does this perfunctorily Sisyphean effort represent the death throes of the Meg Ryan romantic comedy?