Opie Dumbs It Down Again for Us with A Beautiful Mind
Before A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard was the last director you'd expect to make a movie about intellection?and he still is. Howard takes the tortured life of John Forbes Nash Jr., the Princeton mathematician who went through a long bout of schizophrenia yet eventually shared the 1994 Nobel Prize for economic science, and turns it into a trite, maudlin fabrication. It's a lowbrow version of the mess just recently made of writer Iris Murdoch's life in Iris. Instead of bifurcating one person's existence into facile dichotomies of blooming youth and crusty age as in Iris, Howard and his screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (screenwriter of Lost in Space) go inside Nash's head?selectively depicting his reality and his delusions?to make the baffling things he went through for nearly 50 years more conventionally "exciting."
This reduction occurs primarily to make Nash's story less frightening. (Less It-could-happen-to-you and more Don't-you-wish-it-happened-to-you?) That's how crazy the thinking is in Hollywood. Producer Brian Grazer, who optioned Nash's story after reading a Vanity Fair article detailing the scientist's plight-and-triumph, claims, "I saw that the story could present a visceral experience for an audience." Not an intellectual experience?which is to say, not an emotionally credible one, but an emotionally deceptive experience. Beginning in 1947 when Nash (Russell Crowe) arrives in Princeton from West Virginia, the story concentrates on Nash's paranoid fear, following the U.S. deployment of the atomic bomb, of the government coopting the scientific community. He becomes a reluctant version of Indiana Jones; recruited by a shadowy operative, William Parcher (Ed Harris), who enlists him in secret-agent code-breaking projects; and eventually brings his mounting anxieties home to his Bond-girl wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). Through such high-concept traducements, A Beautiful Mind pays tribute to the mass audience's anti-intellectual tendency. And it goes further: Nash's later years are portrayed as harmless doddering. The uplifting condescension presents him as a lovable schizo, a modern day Mr. Chips?still puttering around Princeton, patting his delusions instead of former students on their heads.
Hollywood's fear of bringing viewers into the verbal, numerical, theoretical world of science and economics parallels the Brit pretense of literacy in Iris (what few Murdoch quotations those filmmakers used were contradictory; they sounded literate rather than conveying a coherent, perhaps troubling or bonkers philosophy). The entertainment cliches that constantly degrade Nash's story satisfy the filmmakers more than they make a harried intellectual life believable or interesting. First A Beautiful Mind depicts Nash competing among his brash Ivy League rivals, then his dorm pranks and pub-crawling. Socially awkward, his crude pursuit of generic blondes is what inspires him to develop the "game theory" of economics that would later lead to his Nobel Prize. But is it necessary to vulgarize the Nobel citation for "pioneering analysis of equilibria in the theory of non-cooperative games" into Porky's?
Howard exposes his misunderstanding of the material. Like so many Hollywood hands, he's more committed to furthering industry technology (and spending) rather than dramatizing how an insider like Nash (or themselves) stays remote from political scrutiny and self-examination. In an introductory scene, Nash is at a Princeton mixer when he notes the geometrical shapes of a shadow and sun glare on a tabletop and scans for its exact complement in the design pattern on a fellow student's wardrobe: "You have no idea how bad that tie is," Nash insults him. Already, in this early scene, Howard confuses Nash's one-upmanship?his drive to find "a truly original idea"?with f/x sleight of hand. This scene, filled with technological industry trends, mismatches visual dazzle with Nash's own idiosyncrasy (esthetics with science?) to no point except to seem ingenious. It's like the moment Nash goes to MIT and gets drafted into the Office of Strategic Services' (OSS) inner sanctum; Howard showcases Nash in the midst of a dazed new world, with computers and illuminated figures on wall-sized screens. When he's courting Alicia, the couple stands outside stargazing and Howard features another f/x spectacle similar to the constellation grids on the ceiling of Grand Central station. It's a wow, but why? These gimmicks take the story out of any realistic context. With no possibility of judging how or when Nash slips into dementia, we can only share the dislocation as (in the wretched Hollywood parlance of our day) "a ride."
It's no joke that when the arrogant Nash tells someone, "You have no respect for cognitive reverie!" he could be accusing Howard. To portray Nash's inner turmoil, Howard shows a desk being pushed out of Nash's dorm window?it's loud and overscaled simply to keep the audience from being bored. But the crude appreciation he's after is worse. Predisposed against intellectual filmmaking, Howard's falling back on Nash and Alicia's romance, car chases and shootouts was inevitable. But it wasn't imperative. George Miller's Lorenzo's Oil paced its characters' intellectual processes to an intriguing narrative rhythm (and there are other examples of fleet, erudite storytelling in Amistad, Three Kings, Trixie, even the jokey Being John Malkovich). Howard indulges the notion of idiot savantry?making Nash cuddly rather than intimidating?as part of his chosen alternative to avoid the un-American suggestion of intellectual arrogance.
No filmmaker panders to the concept of the popular audience more than Ron Howard. The French have not yet fallen for cinema d'Opie, but many Americans have, contributing to his box-office take as dutifully as if paying taxes in Mayberry. Howard's commercial significance is worth serious note (and critique) because he is part of the tv-to-film industry movement that, since the early 80s, has been responsible for the dumbing-down of feature films. His big-budget movies, with their inflated production values, ironically tend to oversimplify everything (labor politics in the surprisingly observant Gung-Ho, senility in Cocoon, family in Parenthood, adventure-fantasy in Willow, masculine competition in Backdraft, immigrant class struggle in Far and Away, media ethics in The Paper, American militarism in Apollo 13, moneyed isolation in Ransom, reality television in EdTV and commercialism in last year's execrable How the Grinch Stole Christmas). In all those movies Howard's infernal blend of wholesomeness and blandness frustrates any fascination.
It is Howard who commits the blatant sentimentality people blame on Spielberg. Despite the range of topics he has taken on, Howard's films always tell audiences exactly what they already know about the subjects. (You could easily imagine A Beautiful Mind becoming a tv sitcom, Those Crazy Eggheads!) Offering no surprises is probably why Howard doesn't confound viewers and critics as has Spielberg. Never threatening to expand audience consciousness, Howard seduces them with reassuring cliches. What he purveys is essentially a tv esthetic?just like the even more offensive Michael Mann. (Surprisingly, Howard has evinced a stronger visual sense than the mindlessly flashy Mann. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives A Beautiful Mind a full-color version of his film-noir gloss in The Man Who Wasn't There, then shifts to greeting-card hominess.)
Nondiscriminating viewers might think Howard's anything-for-a-laugh-or-tear technique is the basis of pop entertainment, but in A Beautiful Mind it's just a mess of clashing moods. "Who among you will be the vanguard of democracy, freedom, discovery?" a professor challenges Nash and his classmates, yet the film forsakes ambition for a flashier subject, conspiracy. This also gets cheap, since, as it follows Nash's exploits, his journey is at one point identified as "The Pentagon 1953?Five Years Later." Does Opie think his audience can't add?
Adding to A Beautiful Mind's problem is Russell Crowe?not an actor who can convey thinking. Cute enough for Howard's adorable-schizo concept, Crowe approaches it scrupulously. His mock-shyness recalls Jeffrey Wright's childlike evasiveness as Basquiat?the same head-bobbing and index-finger-curling as a form of sexy entreaty. (How ersatz can Hollywood get? Nash's wife may well have been a babe, but Jennifer Connelly sho nuff is, tilting the film toward a romance yet not giving the able Connelly enough context to make Alicia intellectually substantial.) So Crowe is left pushing the coy aspect of ambitious people?making Nash strange and remote from the very beginning?that Howard and Goldsman aren't willing to confront in their hero. They completely neglect his family and emotional background, keeping him generic. When Nash becomes dangerous (even to himself), it seems mostly because Howard and Goldsman are afraid of dark areas and sharp edges?the very things James Mason and Nicholas Ray got at in the story of a 1950s instructor in Bigger than Life. More recently, the underrated Mel Gibson accomplished what Crowe does not, giving his finest performance yet as the paranoiac in Conspiracy Theory. That film also ruined its potential with bogus entertainment values, but at least it didn't disgrace an actual person's life or insult our capacity to understand how a complex mind faces the complexities of private and political responsibility. The shame of A Beautiful Mind is that it is an intellectual sham.
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