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Beautiful Mind, A

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/10/05 16:16:55

"Crowe, Connelly, and Howard, all at their best."
5 stars (Awesome)

It should say something about Russell Crowe as an actor that after the tough guy roles of “L.A. Confidential,” “Gladiator,” and “Proof of Life,” he’s also utterly convincing as a nerd. True, anyone who saw his amazing work in “The Insider” knows how good the guy can be, but as famed mathematician John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” he delivers his best performance to date, completely disappearing into his role, unrecognizable as the movie star he is. It’s a performance that’s not just great; it’s amazing.

You could say the same thing for the movie itself, a true work of art from director Ron Howard. It’s one of those captivating dramas that never falters; the acting, the directing, and yes, even the writing, all spot-on fantastic. (And I never thought I’d ever say that about something written by Akiva Goldsman, the guy who penned “Batman & Robin” and “Lost In Space.”)

The movie is more like three great films for the price of one. Film number one follows John Nash as he enters Princeton in the late 1940s, where his awkward social skills and arrogant behavior keep him at odds with his fellow classmates. He does manage, however, to create a revolutionary economic theory that’s ingenious enough to land him at the nation’s top think tank.

That brings us to film number two, where we leap forward to the 1950s, and Nash is working not only as MIT’s worst professor (he’s just terrible with people), but also as occasional consultant to the Pentagon. Nash falls for Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), a lovely student not put off by his odd behavior. Meanwhile, a government agent (Ed Harris) gets Nash involved in some big league spy stuff, getting him to crack Soviet codes planted in stateside magazines. What makes this a bad idea is that Nash is later diagnosed with schizophrenia, which makes one delusional and paranoid - not a good illness for somebody in the spy game.

Jump forward again to film number three, which details Nash’s attempts to treat the disease. It’s this section of the movie that’s truly remarkable, as we get a first-hand account of mental illness and what it does to a life. Nash is forced to battle all kinds of demons, and the filmmakers take an unflinching look at the various treatments available, including insulin shock therapy and medicine that dulls Nash’s usually busy mind.

There’s more to the story - a lot more - but this is a film best seen with little knowledge of the events. There are plenty of amazing surprises here, as the movie continues to take a good number of unexpected turns. Knowing only scant details of Nash’s real life, I can’t tell you how close this biography comes to the truth, but I can tell you that real or fiction, it’s a gripping account of an amazing life.

How gripping? Howard manages to create the same sense of tension in the later scenes as he does in the 1950s spy stuff (which is rather intense). Crowe creates such a believable and fascinating character that the audience needs to know what will happen next. His later scenes, which find him looking on the brink of tears, broken by the shame of his public breakdown, are heartbreaking. Even in earlier scenes, where we see Nash as a young nerdy asshole, we’re still captivated by him, trying to figure out just what’s going on inside the guy’s head.

It’s Crowe at his absolute best, and fortunately, we’re treated to many performances of equal quality. Connelly is remarkable as the future Mrs. Nash, managing to be utterly charming in one scene, devastatingly sad the next. And for an actress who hasn’t seemed to age a day in the fifteen-odd years she’s made movies, she does age, quite convincingly, in fact. (Extra credit goes to the make-up staff, who age all the actors with the most convincing old-person make-ups I’ve ever seen.)

How about the rest of the cast? Harris is as good as always, making a damn fine 50s-era G-man. Judd Hirsch, Christopher Plummer, Adam Goldberg, Josh Lucas, and Anthony Rapp all deliver fantastic turns in their respective bit parts. The real standout is Paul Bettany, who gives a performance as Nash’s brash college roommate strong enough to hopefully make him a full-blown star. Energetic and wild, he’s the perfect compliment to the antisocial Nash.

Ron Howard has made many good movies, a few bad ones, and one great one (“Apollo 13”). Now, with “A Beautiful Mind,” he’s made two great ones; I’d say this is his best to date. From start to finish, I was enraptured by whatever the story would give me. Its presentation of a serious mental illness is unique and engrossing, yet Crowe’s performance is so powerful that you can feel your heart break along with his.

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