By now, the path is a well-worn one, and most actors know that the way to the podium on Oscar night is through mental illness. Dustin Hoffman got there with his lovable idiot savant in Rain Man; in recent years, Angelina Jolie and Geoffrey Rush have skipped down the same road.
Last year, Russell Crowe won a statuette by playing the wronged hero in Gladiator. Having one on the shelf hasn't prevented him from losing his sanity ' quite effectively ' in A Beautiful Mind. Crowe, a notoriously cantankerous actor, probably didn't have to stretch too far to fit the personality of John Forbes Nash Jr., a notoriously cantankerous math professor whose treatise on game theory landed him the Nobel Prize in 1994. While Nash could grasp the fundamentals of governing dynamics in an instant, he was also a schizophrenic who believed that Soviets were sending him codes in the pages of Life and The New York Times, and frequently spoke to people no one else could see.
When we first meet the tortured mathematical genius, he's obsessively converting the windowpanes at Princeton into stained-glass mosaics of complex theorems and algorithms, annoying his classmates and confounding his dons in his dogged pursuit of an Original Idea. He proves to be the kind of guy for whom a marriage proposal serves as empirical proof of romance; a man for whom making love is first and foremost an exchange of bodily fluids. What a charmer.
Was there something besides Nash's inscrutable intellect that drew people to him? Crowe's triumph is to show just enough humanity beneath the arrogance to make us care. His economical acting focuses largely on the six inches around his eyes. His character is a well-realized series of squints and tics, with a compulsive nervous rub of the forehead tossed in for good measure.
Ron Howard, the director of Cocoon and Far and Away, could easily have pushed Nash's story into disease-of-the-week territory. For the film's first two-thirds, Howard holds back, getting us to feel the pain and terror of a schizoid existence. (Two of the film's most affecting scenes involve characters discovering Nash's dementia-driven code-cracking "work," a wall-to-wall collage of magazine clippings and yarn worthy of Seven's John Doe.) It's only during Nash's long recovery that Beautiful Mind veers into sentimentality.
Alicia, Nash's perpetually suffering wife, probably deserves some kind of Nobel Prize of her own, simply for enduring her spouse's frequent outbursts and relapses. Jennifer Connelly's role is designed to have viewers reaching for their Kleenex boxes as much as Crowe's is, but even though she tackles it with grace and gusto, it feels forced. And, in fact, the character's conception has been forced away from reality: The real Mrs. Nash divorced her tortured husband at the height of his dementia.
History has been made to fit into a nice, tidy triumph-of-the-human-spirit box in other ways as well. The real Nash was in and out of the psych ward three times; Akiva Goldsman's script, culled largely from the biography written by former Nash student Sylvia Nasar, wisely sends him on a single, electroshock-filled trip. Less wise is the script's subtraction-based solution to dealing with the other, more unsavory aspects of Nash's life, such as his apparent racism. Showing Nash with a complex mix of flaws and intellectual greatness ' now that would have been an interesting formula to unravel. Something tells me Crowe would have been up to the task.