• Director: Ron Howard
  • Writer: Akiva Goldsman, based on the non-fiction book by Sylvia Nasar
  • Starring: Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany, Adam Goldberg, Judd Hirsch, Josh Lucas, Anthony Rapp, Austin Pendleton, and Christopher Plummer
  • Accolades: 4 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director- Ron Howard, Best Supporting Actress – Jennifer Connelly, Best Adapted Screenplay), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Russell Crowe, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

A Beautiful Mind is very much what was, at one time, considered a classic “Oscar-bait” movie, a prestige biopic depicting mental illness, with a couple of pretty big (in terms of the showiness of the acting going on) performances at its center. I would argue, however, that like some of the other movies in the same general ballpark that came out around the same time period, A Beautiful Mind would be pretty much completely forgotten today if it hadn’t ended up winning Best Picture at the Oscars. As it did, the movie has not only stayed “on the list” of the general canon, but has remained in semi-steady rotation on the TNT-type mid-level American cable channels ever since.  I had seen it once before, in a theater in 2001. It might have been a Christmas-period movie our family could vaguely agree on, I’m not sure. Honestly I mostly remembered that it had that big Oscar win, in which it beat out several movies that we have featured here (and some we haven’t) that were either way better liked by me, much better remembered over the ensuing years, or both. Watching this, I still felt that way, but I did find myself both enjoying the movie more than I thought I would and yet also somehow very flummoxed by the movie’s general approach.

Russell Crowe, who had also starred in the previous year’s Best Picture winner, Gladiator, plays real-life Nobel Prize-winning mathematician Robert Nash, through a series of tics and what I think is supposed to be a thick West Virginia accent. Nash is an extremely socially-awkward kid from the sticks who earns a fellowship at Princeton in 1947. After figuring out a few mathematical formulas, winning over a group of fellow math students, at least to some degree (played by Josh Lucas, Adam Goldberg, and Anthony Rapp), and bonding with his free-spirit roommate (Paul Bettany), he makes a breakthrough and earns a major job at MIT. There, he is forced to teach every once in a while, and meets a beautiful female student named Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). Very quickly (in movie time), the two of them are getting married and things seem great, but after Nash is briefly called to the Pentagon to break a Russian code, he is secretly recruited to continue codebreaking by a shady government guy in a gray flannel hat (Ed Harris), which seems to send him down a rabbit hole of obsession.

This is about an hour into the movie, almost exactly halfway, so it’s a very weird place for a big twist, nor might you be expecting a big twist in a biography of an actual person. As this is basically the whole reason for the movie, and really the main thing to talk about, I’m going to get into spoilers now (for this 20-year-old movie about an actual historical figure). It is revealed at this point that, in fact, Nash is schizophrenic and doesn’t know it, has been experiencing hallucinations for years, and several of the characters in the movie up to this point are, in fact, only in his head. These include Ed Harris’ government agent and Paul Bettany’s roommate/friend (if you watch the movie already knowing this, you’ll definitely notice a handful of little misdirect moments in the first hour, but the movie is careful that we never see anyone other than Nash Nash actually talking directly to or acknowledging the presence of either Harris or Bettany’s characters before this). This is all explained by Christopher Plummer, who randomly plays a psychologist in like three scenes. The remainder of the movie then becomes Nash struggling with his mental illness, as he finds that medication makes the hallucinations go away but impedes his finding mathematical “inspiration,” and then tries to just ignore the hallucinations while they continue to plague him. Connelly gets her big Oscar scene at one point when, after he rejects her sexual advances and blames the medication, she goes into the bathroom and throws something at the mirror and screams. In the end, he is awarded the Nobel Prize while he and Connelly wear old-age makeup, and we see he is a professor at Princeton and seems to be doing well.

There is quite a bit in A Beautiful Mind that works pretty well, in my opinion. Though director Ron Howard received quite a bit of credit at the time for “making math interesting” to a mainstream audience, he doesn’t really try to do this, or at least he makes only cursory attempts to actually describe to us the actual substance of any math things that Nash did or why they were so important. Rather, he interviewed various real-life mathematicians about how they felt when making a breakthrough, and attempted to bring viewers into that headspace in the movie. This leads to the best-known imagery in the movie, where Crowe stares at walls or pages of numbers and we see certain numbers or formulae light up. 

I also think the performances and the actors are generally pretty good. I was a little snarky about Crowe’s performance, but honestly I think he treads the line pretty well and successfully avoids, to use the famously vulgar formulation of Robert Downey, Jr.’s actor character in Tropic Thunder, “going full retard.” Jennifer Connelly is one of the most beautiful actresses of the modern era, and also hits all the right notes. Inexplicably, Adam Goldberg and Anthony Rapp are basically playing their exact characters from Dazed and Confused, just as mid-century mathematicians, and I am fine with that. On a structural level, the movie is really interesting, because what it basically does is play as a very standard biopic until almost exactly halfway, then turns into a totally different movie for like 45 minutes, and then at the end it sort of resolves the two different movies into one coherent thing. Suffice to say A Beautiful Mind is not going to be used as an example of basic structure in a screenwriting class, it seems to be more of an example of someone who knows all the rules successfully breaking them for specific reasons.

All of that said, if you take a step back here, I’m really not sure what to do with this movie. It takes an actual person’s real mental illness and basically plays it as a “gotcha” plot twist. I read a review where they said that it does a good job of letting us viewers experience what it’s like to have a mental illness and not realize it, moreso than almost any other movie, and I suppose that may be true. I’m not really “offended” on behalf of anyone in particular, it just all feels icky to me as a basic concept. Even taking the movie entirely on its own terms, I don’t think it actually works as a biography of Robert Nash. If I was supposed to come away from this movie with any idea why he was an important mathematician, I definitely did not. Sure, he overcomes his schizophrenia and wins the Nobel Prize, but if they actually said what he was winning it for or what he actually overcame schizophrenia to do, I missed it.

I am usually not “historical accuracy” guy in movies, necessarily, because we’re making a movie and life isn’t a movie. I did find it strange, reading about A Beautiful Mind after watching it, that in fact Robert Nash did not experience visual hallucinations at all (like many schizophrenics, his hallucinations were mainly auditory), this was basically a device invented for the movie. Sylvia Nasar, who wrote the biography on which the movie is ostensibly based, admitted that it was “hardly a literal telling” of his life. A bit less understandable from a filmmaking standpoint, perhaps, is the fact that Alicia Nash, Connelly’s character, was actually born in El Salvador and had an accent, something this movie completely ignores in favor of just having her be a white lady. It’s interesting how just 20 years ago Jennifer Connelly could win an Oscar for playing a real-life person of a different race and it was just a complete non-issue.

Also winning an Oscar for his work on this movie was Akiva Goldsman, which has resulted in a lot of truly terrible movies since then putting “written by Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman” in their trailers. Don’t get me wrong, Goldsman has written a handful of very good movies and TV shows over the years, and I’m sure he’s a great guy or whatever, but I found myself absolutely astounded by the sheer volume of flops on his resume that would have killed his career, but haven’t. I can’t tell if that’s because he has enough prestige built up now from movies like this, or if it’s because he has dirty pictures of somebody. Here is a selection of just a few movies from Goldsman’s screenwriter resume: Batman & Robin, Lost in Space, I, Robot, Angels & Demons, Transformers: The Last Knight, and The Dark Tower. The guy has three career Razzie nominations for Worst Screenplay.

I also thought I’d mention English actor Paul Bettany, who plays the hallucinated roommate character in this movie. Today Bettany seems to be one of those prestigious British actors who has been around as long as anyone can remember, but in actuality he was just starting a movie career in 2001. I think the first time I saw him in anything was earlier that year in A Knight’s Tale (a personal guilty pleasure of mine), playing a version of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer that, um, to describe as “heavily fictionalized” would be a gross understatement. Part of the reason I bring him up is because, on the set of this movie, Bettany met Jennifer Connelly for the first time. It turns out that Bettany had a long-time serious crush on her since he had seen Labyrinth as a child (I mean, I think a lot of people did, but we don’t have posh accents). Then, despite the fact that the two of them had never actually been on a date and were not in a relationship, Bettany claimed that he was “motivated by the September 11 attacks to act on his feelings” for Connelly, and on September 14, 2001, he proposed to her. Astonishingly (to me), she accepted, and it seems as if all has worked out, as the two of them have remained apparently happily married to this day and have multiple children together.

I know that was a digression, but once I read that story on the Paul Bettany Wikipedia page, I had to get that in here. Anyway, we have now come to the end of our “Film Odyssey” through the movies of the year 2001, 20 years later, and honestly there was a lot less discussion of September 11 in there than I think I would have expected (remember how crazy that was? It was crazy). We will have more 2001 movies on this site over time, I’m sure. It was a great year for movies, and there’s a lot more to explore. Thanks to everyone who watched and read along with us! Remember, our next big feature, the World Cinema Winter Festival, featuring movies from 19 countries around the world while some unrelated winter-themed sporting event goes on, is set to start February 2. We hope to have plenty of fun stuff in the meantime, too!

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