Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Beautiful Mind


My campaign to be half of a celebrity super-couple by the new year still isn't going terribly well. I thought for certain that the big New Year's Eve bash at Skybar would bring me that special someone. I did meet a number of somewhat eligible men including a very nice actor named Jeff with multiple films to his credit who has promised me that he can show me a very good time. I gave Mr. Stryker my number and he's supposed to call me later in the week. 

In the meantime, I've been busy with all of my consumer goods businesses which have been languishing somewhat over the last few months. My signature lingerie line, Vicki's Secret, had a fourth quarter sales decline of nearly 15% so I had to call the salesmen in and give them a real dressing down. I reminded them that when they're selling Thinga Thong brand programmable musical underwear, they're selling a part of me, a living legend and that the women of America need to be reminded of just how important it is to emulate me if they truly want glamour and style. 

After inspiring my sales force, I decided I needed a truly uplifting and inspirational film so I toddled off to the home theater with a mug of earl grey tea to find something appropriate. In the 'To View' pile was last year's Oscar winner for best picture, A Beautiful Mind, which I had somehow managed to miss so I popped it into the machine for a look. 

A Beautiful Mind stars Aussie actor Russell Crowe as mathematician John Nash, a man who produced some innovative ideas on the modeling of economic systems which eventually won him the Nobel Prize. As is often the case, genius comes with a price and Nash also suffered from serious schizophrenia, complete with delusions, and hallucinations. How he combats his inner demons to restore himself to reality and a semblance of normal human interactions is the backbone upon which this trifle of a film rests. 

The film starts with Nash as a student at Princeton, determined to have a breakthrough idea. He is unloved by his fellow students due to his strange ways and anti-social behavior. He spends much time chatting to an imaginary roommate (Paul Bettany)who I think is supposed to represent the good impulses behind his mental disorder. Eventually, he has his big idea (and this will be the one and only film to ever reduce complicated mathematical economic theory to a visual metaphor involving picking up co-eds in a campus bar) and is well on his way to success. Along the way, he meets the saintly Alicia (Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly) who sees something underneath his awkward mannerisms and growing psychosis and marries him. 

Nash is hired to work as a cryptologist by the government, at a time when the cold war is in full bloom. This aura of secrecy feeds straight into his paranoia and delusions and soon he's conjured up another imaginary compatriot, Parcher (Ed Harris), who is supposedly his secret boss urging him to find codes and patterns in newspapers and magazines which will help the government foil an attempt by the Russians to plant atomic weapons in the US. Eventually, the depth of Nash's psychosis is uncovered and he's off to the mental hospital under the care of a psychiatrist (Christopher Plummer) who subjects him to the full One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest panoply of 1950s psychiatric treatment. The medications put the psychosis in remission, but losing his psychotic thought patterns means losing his genius in seeing the solutions to problems. Nash eventually learns to battle his inner demons and ignore his disordered thoughts while keeping his mind clear to do his work and he and Alicia rattle along toward the inevitable soaring uplift conclusion of the Nobel ceremony where he's honored for his work of so many years ago. 

Making a film about mental illness is fraught with problems. Schizophrenia and other mind disorders are, by nature, non-visual phenomena which a movie must somehow translate into visual terms. It's like trying to dramatize the internet - a film of people sitting around typing on keyboards would lose an audience after thirty seconds. This film does it by bringing Nash's delusions to hallucinatory life. It's a simplistic solution, but works in its own terms, mainly due to Crowe's performance and the talents of Bettany and Harris. Crowe, one of our finest actors, eschews the usual neurotic tics used to convey mental illness in the movies, the Rain Man school of acting that's so damned insufferable, in favor of quiet focus and vacant stares. It's a powerful performance as it's so damned unexpected and registers the narrow balance between sanity and delusion that exists in the character. If anyone deserved to be Oscared for this film, he did. (He lost to Denzel Washington in Training Day.) 

Jennifer Connelly, who did win, plays Alicia as cool, smart, noble, but able to have her own temper flares. She also gets lots of interesting age make-up as the film progresses. She's good, but any competent actress of her age could have done as well. There's nothing really special about her. Paul Bettany, as the imaginary roommate, is the most interesting thing in the film. He's the counterbalance to all the supposed G-men in black hats running around and he takes risks to make his character sympathetic, and at the same time somewhat strange and otherworldly. I look forward to more of his performances in the future. 

Ron Howard, who I assume won his Oscar for his fifty year Hollywood career and not for this film, uses every single Hollywood biopic cliché to tell his story. Five minutes into the film and I knew exactly where it was going to go and how it was going to end. There's not a single original storytelling idea in it, from him or screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (also Oscared). His best moments are his visual dramatizations of advanced mathematics where we see lines and angles in the environment interact from Nash's point of view. Nash also seems to like writing equations on windows, I assume for stunning photographic effects as I can't imagine the real man would do anything quite so inefficient. You'll cringe at things like 'the pen ceremony' as they've been done in dozens of better films. 

The DVD is a deluxe two disc release. The first disc contains the film in widescreen with two commentary tracks, one by Howard and one by Goldsman. (I did not care enough for the film to sit through either one.) The second disc has dozens of extras including interviews, specials on the development of the film, on the real John and Alicia Nash and the like. Again, I could not be bothered with spending more time with these people. 

Lemon slice tie. Evaporating co-eds. Gratuitous exchange of bodily fluids references. Secret mailbox drop. Unchanging small child. Gratuitous flying desk. Faculty tea. Electroshock therapy. Gratuitous Austin Pendleton.

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