Frank Capra called his autobiography The Name Above the Title, referring to the fact that he received top billing on the films he directed. But what the posters called “Frank Capra’s Its a Wonderful Life” is now known to all who see it each Christmas as “Jimmy Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life.” Granted, Capra was famous among critics (it was a writer for Time who called his films “Capra-corn”), but I can’t imagine that many 1940s moviegoers knew his name, much less that they ever went to see a movie solely because he directed it. Even Billy Wilder couldn’t sell tickets without a star on the marquee. Excluding celebrity actor-directors such as Clint Eastwood, you can count on the thumbs of both hands the major Hollywood directors whose names have been mass-marketable commodities: Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg.
Ron Howard doesn’t have that kind of drawing power, but the day may come when he does, for some of the same reasons. Just as you buy a Butterfinger because you know exactly how it will taste, you rent a Hitchcock movie because you know it will scare you in a certain kind of way. (Of course, there are other reasons, Hitchcock being one of those artists who has as much to offer the connoisseur as the casual viewer, but that’s another essay.) Howard’s commodity of choice, by contrast, is will-he-or-won’t-he movies that end with the hero being cheered by a crowd of dewy-eyed admirers. If you liked Apollo 13, in which three regular-guy astronauts emerge triumphant from a desperate struggle with the breakdown of their spacecraft, you’ll probably like A Beautiful Mind, in which a quirky mathematical genius emerges triumphant from an equally desperate struggle with schizophrenia.
Probably—but not necessarily. As it happens, I liked Apollo 13 a lot, but I had sharply mixed feelings about Howard’s latest exercise in big-budget optimism. It’s the same movie, only with a different sort of hero, one who doesn’t fit so neatly into the Apollo 13 recipe for box-office success. In order to make him fit, Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have been forced to perform extensive plastic surgery on the unsuspecting person of John Nash, the Princeton professor whose unhappy life is freely dramatized in A Beautiful Mind. The result is a movie that is phony in all sorts of ways, some obvious and some less so.
In the film, Nash (Russell Crowe) is an undeniably eccentric but nonetheless strangely likable introvert who as a graduate student at Princeton makes a dramatic breakthrough in game theory. This wins him a high-level position at MIT, where he works as a consultant to the Pentagon and woos and wins Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), a knockout coed who also knows her way around a quadratic equation. Alas, all is not well inside Nash’s beautiful mind, for he is secretly suffering from delusions that evolve into full-blown paranoid schizophrenia. It seems that he sees people who don’t exist, among them a black-clad CIA agent (Ed Harris) who enlists him in an elaborate scheme to stop the Soviets from nuking America.
In time, Nash’s deteriorating condition is noticed by his colleagues, and he is institutionalized, put on Thorazine, and given insulin-shock therapy, which turns him into a manageable robot but also renders him impotent, both professionally and personally. Unwilling to write him off, Alicia painstakingly nurses him back to health, and he stops taking antipsychotic drugs, comes to terms with his delusions, returns to Princeton, and becomes a part-time teacher. As if all this weren’t enough, it turns out that the Ph.D. thesis Nash wrote in the late 1940s has become a cornerstone of postmodern economic thought, and he finally wins a Nobel Prize for it in 1994, three decades after he went off the deep end.
Here endeth the movie—but not the story, for Nash’s life was sadder and more complicated than Ron Howard would have you know. As has been pointed out by testy reviewers discourteous enough to read the biography by Sylvia Nasar on which A Beautiful Mind is based, Nash was an arrogant, unlikable bisexual who fathered an illegitimate child and was arrested for homosexual solicitation; he and Alicia were divorced in 1963, though they moved back in together several years later; and their son, like his father, is both a mathematician and a schizophrenic. None of these things is so much as mentioned, or even alluded to, in A Beautiful Mind.
Having prettified Nash’s life and personality, Howard and Goldsman do the same thing to his illness. Yes, we see him strapped to a hospital gurney at one point, undergoing an insulin-induced convulsion, and from time to time, he is allowed to look haggard, but for the most part, Nash’s delusions are so thoroughly integrated into his day-to-day existence that we never really get a sense of how shocking his rapid mental disintegration must have been to the people around him. Even the scene in which he nearly drowns his baby boy in a bathtub lacks the impact it should have had.
Part of the problem is Crowe’s performance, which is good on its own terms but nonetheless fails to convey the full extent of Nash’s mental confusion. This may not be his fault—the script is written in such a way as to make him seem less wild than he really was—but anyone who has seen Nicholas Ray’s harrowing Bigger Than Life, in which James Mason is driven insane by cortisone therapy and comes dangerously close to murdering his entire family, will know what is missing from A Beautiful Mind. We’ve seen this kind of soft, ingratiating “madness” before in Hollywood movies: It is shrewdly calculated to win Oscars, and I expect it’ll pay off this time, just like always.
I was troubled by other aspects of A Beautiful Mind, including the sneaky way in which Howard and Goldsman contrive to suggest that the Cold War was itself nothing more than a paranoid fantasy (at one point, the nonexistent Harris, who is trying to recruit Nash as a spy, assures him that “McCarthy is an idiot, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong,” a poisonously cute touch). But the part that irritated me most was when Alicia, frustrated by Nash’s loss of interest in sex, coaxes him back into bed, assuring him that sleeping with her is better therapy than submitting to psychiatric treatment. We’ve seen this kind of “cure” before, too, most recently in Shine, another movie that took the life of a suffering man and snipped out all the awkward bits, leaving behind nothing but a hap-hap-happy tale of Triumph Over Adversity, complete with cheering crowds.
In A Beautiful Mind, Alicia begs her pitiful husband to “believe that something extraordinary is possible,” and sure enough, he goes back to work and wins a Nobel Prize (though Howard downplays the fact that it was awarded for a paper Nash wrote as a young man, a full decade before illness destroyed his career). Still, the real-life story of John Nash did have a happy ending of sorts, and had the movie version of that story been more than vaguely true to the frightening life that inspired it, I might well have felt as uplifted as Howard wanted me to be. Instead, I left the theater with James Horner’s syrupy musical score dribbling out of my ears (and yes, that’s Charlotte Church mewling over the credits), disgusted with myself for having been even slightly moved by a movie so patently unwilling to level with its viewers about the agony of schizophrenia.
If you liked Shine, you’ll love A Beautiful Mind.