Lesson number 1,346 in bad trailering. "A Beautiful Mind" (IMDb listing), in the eyes of the marketing team at Universal Studios, is one part taut thriller about a slightly eccentric genius roped into government undercover work that somehow goes wrong. It also is another part romance between two people madly in love with each other. It's too bad the suits thought so little of their own film, since "Mind" is a daring-in-tone, yet a pleasingly sturdy audience picture that is the exact opposite of what you might see in the TV commercials or the aforementioned trailer.
John Nash (Russell Crowe) is a mathematical genius, yet severely troubled man suffering from schizophrenia. From his days at Princeton in the late 40s, Nash tried to find the perfect theory that would catapult him from simple student to man of authority and regard. Yet, in his quest to find this answer, he begins a long journey into madness. A journey that is tempered by the help of Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), a young student of Nash's that soon becomes his long suffering wife. Together, the two try to steer their way through years of setbacks that Nash tries with all his might to overcome in an attempt to win back respect, intelligence and his wife's love.
"A Beautiful Mind" shares some of the same qualities as the recent Cameron Crowe picture, "Vanilla Sky." Both films share an insanity angle that the two directors take great care in not backing down from. Yet, "Mind" is helmed by Ron Howard, noted homogenizer of any film within 100 feet of him. Howard likes to water down genuine drama, as though he's afraid to challenge his audience. This is the man who gave the cinematic world the middle finger last year with that putrid "Grinch" film for goodness sake! In a quest to find weightier material to satisfy his slightly blurry artistic eye, Howard impresses with his directing in "Mind."
The film takes some sharp detours into the mind of a schizophrenic man, and while there are brief moments of turning the complicated Nash into a teddy bear, Howard never sucker-punches the story (which is based in truth) to fit his typical need to please. He keeps the film gloomy and corrosive, not even turning a blind eye to Nash's borderline homicidal instincts (though Nash's recently reported dalliances with homosexuality are not touched). The work here is unexpected, and not since "Backdraft" has Howard taken such a passionate stance in portraying a controversial subject. I doubt this will signal a shift in Ron Howard towards edgier stories, but "Mind" does remind the audience that Howard can still bang with the big boys of drama when he chooses to.
While Howard provides the spine to "Mind," it is Crowe that gets the story from A to B. A richly realized, submerging performance, Crowe continues to balance his peculiar career, alternating between brawny action flicks ("Proof Of Life," "Gladiator") with more human stories of personal strife ("The Insider"). Crowe takes John Nash very seriously, showing him to be more aware of his peculiarities than even Nash himself would admit to. Not just a simple "Rain Man" performance, Crowe breathes life into this tangled, profound man. He makes him as real as Ron Howard and loathed screenwriter Akvia Goldsman ("Batman And Robin," "Lost In Space") will allow. It's a great performance.
Yet without help from Jennifer Connelly, Crowe would be a sinking ship. Connelly, herself an accomplished actress, matches Crowe pointedly as the tormented Mrs. Nash. It's even a more complex role for Connelly, as she must convey clearly just why Alicia never abandoned Nash. Connelly achieves this remarkable feat with room to spare.
"A Beautiful Mind" is a more forbidding motion picture than I think people might be prepared for. It's not without compromises here and there, but it retains an integrity within both the story and the man that I think should be celebrated. Howard, Crowe, Goldsman and Connelly have all gone out of their way to infuse this film with more regard than their previous projects. The change won't last forever (bills do need to be paid), so take solidly built films like "A Beautiful Mind" while you can get them.
Filmfodder Grade: A-