Wednesday, October 14, 2009

2001 - A Beautiful Mind

Today, I went to the gym for the first time in ... well, ever. I've never been a member of a gym before. I suppose I figured exercise was something that could be done anywhere, so why pay through the nose for a room full of equipment you don't know how to use properly when you can just go for a jog. Of course, I never went for a jog either, but it was the perfect justification for not going to the gym. Kat and I had a stationary bike at home in Sydney, which for me, was the ideal way to exercise, because I could slip a DVD into the player and watch a movie while I shed the pounds. But, alas, no bike here in Astoria, so we needed to look elsewhere for our fitness needs. And since our insurance pretty much covers the entire cost of membership, we joined a gym on the weekend. We have to visit it at least 50 times within six months to receive the insurance rebate, so let's see how that pans out...

Not wanting to stray too far from the exercise-movie relationship, after the gym, I slipped a DVD into the player and watched another Best Picture nominee from 2001...

A Beautiful Mind
Ron Howard
Akiva Goldsman
(based on the book by Sylvia Nasar)
Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Paul Bettany, Christopher Plummer, Adam Goldberg, Josh Lucas
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
4 wins, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay

Based on the life of a Nobel Laureate, the beautiful mind of the title belongs to John Nash, a brilliant mathematician with a slight problem when it comes to social interaction. He thinks in proofs and formulae about everything, from the behaviour of pigeons to the best method to get laid. His phenomenal aptitude at code breaking piques the interest of the Department of Defense, who put him to work on a top secret assignment uncovering patterns in newspapers and magazines. Alicia, his wife and former student, notices Nash's increasing paranoia and he is soon diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Armed with this new perspective, our nerdy hero struggles with determining what in his life is real and what is just a hallucinatory symptom of his condition.

Here's another one of those films that is inevitably less powerful the second time around. I remember being completely taken in by Nash's hallucinations the first time I saw A Beautiful Mind, even though I knew the main character was schizophrenic. I accepted his experiences as they became more and more implausible, so it took some time before I realised what was going on. But unlike a thriller or mystery that may leave clever clues to the twist that can be enjoyed on repeat viewings (like in The Sixth Sense, for example), this film is a drama, so the focus is on character, before and after the twist is revealed. Thus, since the delusions that Nash experiences are extremely real to him, director Ron Howard makes them a reality for us. This means that, although you get a different perspective on the events if you've seen the film before, there's not really anything new to glean from them.

That said, some of the hallucinatory scenes are still particularly gripping, whether you're aware of their reality or not. Plus, the smart and subtle use of visual effects as Nash's mind spots patterns and calculates formulae works very nicely. But this film is a character study if ever there was one. As Nash's psychiatrist ponders during his treatment, "Imagine if you suddenly learned that the people, the places, the moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse, had never been. What kind of hell would that be?" Don't worry, though. The dialogue doesn't hit us over the head like that very often, but even though that line is a little manipulative and sentimental, it is certainly food for thought.

Being a character study, the actor playing that character has his work cut out for him. Here, Russell Crowe isn't bad as Nash, but perhaps I'm only convinced by his performances when he plays the rough around the edges roles. Think Romper Stomper and Proof of Life and especially Gladiator. Tough guys who say things as they are. Just like Crowe himself. However, dress him up as a middle-aged tobacco industry whistle-blower or, in this case, a meek and socially awkward academic, and for some reason, I just don't buy it. Perhaps it was the false teeth. Or maybe the false accent. Still, the old-age make-up at the end of the film is incredibly impressive, on both Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, who gives a top notch Oscar-winning performance as Nash's long-suffering but supportive wife.

It has certainly been tough for me to comment on A Beautiful Mind because I know I was honestly taken aback on my initial viewing. I still enjoyed it this time but I guess you can never get back that sense of wonder you feel when you are genuinely surprised. And it happens to the best of them. Even Psycho, with all its brilliance, is never quite the same after that first time...


  1. What makes a movie watchable multiple times? Movies with a mystery or a twist must be able to stand on their own once that aspect is revealed. If it's a good movie with an engaging story, I'll watch it over and over. But yes Matt, oh that first time is special - especially when there's a twist.

    "Wanna Kiss Me Ducky?" If you don't know the significance of that line, please don't google it. It will turn up in one of the challenge movies at some point, and it is part of a delicious twist.

    I found A Beautiful Mind to be very engaging and emotionally satisfying. I know Ron Howard and the film were criticized for leaving out much of John Nash's more despicable behavior and history. Since I didn't know about him beforehand, it didn't affect my appreciation of the film. I thought Howard's presentation of Nash's mental issues were clever and for the most part, played fair.

    Russell Crowe I think is one of a small handful of contemporary actors that have real charisma, whether playing larger than life or in a more internalized role like this one. I really thought he should have won the Oscar. Denzel Washington, another charismatic actor had better roles than his in "Training Day."

    Roger Deakins is clearly one of the finest cinematographers working today. As he did in last year's "Doubt," he does subtle but superb work here.

    All in all, "A Beautiful Mind" seems very much an Academy Award caliber film.

  2. I kind of agree with Mike as far as Russell Crowe is concerned. He's an intriguing actor who can pull off multiple types of roles. I never pigeon-holed him as a rough and ready type of actor, although his demeanor when interviewed tends to give you that impression. As for Jennifer Connelly, she was great and beautiful, but if I remember correctly I preferred Kate Winslet in Iris, but don’t hold me to that. I do however agree with you Matt as far as the movie is concerned. I have the DVD because I loved the movie at the time, but it’s not on my list to see again anything time soon. Maybe it will age like wine and I’ll pop the bottle in the future.

    Sal D

  3. Hmmm, maybe it's because, as an Australian, I've seen so much of Russell Crowe out of character that he's become etched in my mind as an Aussie bloke. And so I just can't let that image go when I see him do this kind of stuff. All I can see is him acting.