A Beautiful Mind (Howard, 2001)

A Beautiful Mind

(Warning: There are plot spoilers in this review.)

In the run up to the Academy Awards, it is customary to see all nature of lists on the blogosphere. I have noticed it has become increasingly popular to opine on historic sleights, surprising results, and (perceived) undeserving winners. In several such lists, I have also noticed Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind showing up with increasing frequency. My perception is that the ten year interval since this film came out has not been kind to its critical reputation.

Even more recently, I just finished reading Nicole Laporte’s The Men Who Would Be King, a dishy, gossipy, recapitulation (it feels a little too heavy in anonymous sources to be dubbed a “history”) of the creation of Dreamworks. One of the few threads that forms the foundation of Laporte’s book is the thesis that the victory of Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan ushered in a renewed era of politicking in and around the Academy Awards–that the press at Dreamworks took a play book developed by Weinstein and ran with it, increasingly treating the seasonal awards as campaigns to be fought and won through marketing. Whether that characterization is fair or accurate, I do not really know. I lack the first hand experience of the Hollywood community and its workings to have much confidence that this practice was more pronounced in the 2000s than it was before. It strikes me as a creditable claim, though, if only because so many of the films that won from that decade–Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Crash, Titanic–seem, in retrospect to be more processed and positioned than inspired or ambitious. That is not to say any of them are bad films. I find myself defending the unabashed pathos of Titanic more than most of my peers. These films, though, do strike me as more popular than successful, and one indication of that fact is that I’ve never had a desire to revisit A Beautiful Mind until it came up for this series.

What I Said Then

(Originally published at Viewpoint, a precursor to this blog.)

[….] A Beautiful Mind is directed by Ron Howard, a talented commercial director who lacks the subtlety of a true artist. Howard is drawn to interesting material, but he has a tendency to reduce his films to the lowest common denominator. Only Apollo 13 avoids the crude emotional bombardment that is Howard’s signature. One got the feeling with that film that Howard’s respect for a true story reigned in his commercial crassness a tad, and so it was logical to hope that A Beautiful Mind, also based on a true story, might have the same effect. Unfortunately, it is more the tone of Ransom or Parenthood or Backdraft. There is a lyric glow that imbues some of Howard’s heroes that wears old very quickly. It is as though he worships his protagonists and never quite gets to see them as human. Not that John Nash, the protagonist of A Beautiful Mind, is portrayed without faults or warts. But what starts out as a personality sketch becomes a battle against a disease, and in the face of such an abstract villain, the audience cannot but help root for Nash in spite of his difficulties.

Occasionally the film will toy with a conflict, but it shies away from most of them. In the middle of the film, Nash struggles with the fact that his medication, while keeping him from being delusional, prevents him (at least in his own mind) from producing his best work. In real-life, Nash was apparently helped by advances in medication. The film presents him as simply deciding to overcome this limitation by strength of his own will. Similarly, in the middle of the film, dramatic perspective shifts suddenly to Nash’s wife (Jennifer Connelly in a gratifyingly controlled performance) and we are given a glimpse (but a glimpse only) of the tremendous costs to others that Nash’s achievements are built upon. Yet here again the film chooses to applaud rather than explore, giving her a standing ovation but not a three dimensional characterization. She stands by her man.

[….] I give A Beautiful Mind high marks based on its technical proficiency and the sheer brute force of its subject matter. If it had the courage or sophistication to strike more than one note it could have been great. That it did not does not make it, I suppose, a bad film, but it does keep it from being a great one.

What I Say Now

I gave the film a B+, which in retrospect strikes me as slightly generous. In terms of my review, the harshness of the criticism of all things Ron Howard also strikes me as overstated a tad, an example of something I’ve recently lamented elsewhere–the tendency of new voices to try to garner attention by overstating criticism of something or someone currently popular. (You can bet whatever film wins tonight’s award, there will be many, many more criticisms of it from advocates for the films that didn’t win than there will be celebrations of the films they thought should have won.)

Actually, although my estimation of the film did not grow, I was struck in re-viewing it how my perception of its weaknesses was very different. The film I kept thinking of while watching it this time was The Sixth Sense (1999), and I do not think it a stretch to draw a straight line from the power provided by that film’s surprise twist and the way Howard’s film keeps deferring its definitive reveal that the protagonist is suffering from schizophrenic delusions.

Film’s with big plot twists tend to have an exaggerated immediate impact that gets diluted over time. Many of them don’t bear up well to repeat viewings. A Beautiful Mind isn’t about its reveal, but the reveal is deferred so long for dramatic value that it makes it hard for the film to be about anything else. The central section that shifts to Connely’s character is most interesting. Nash’s storyline is treated too much like an abstract technical problem to be solved (how do we film mental illness?) and not enough as a human story with real emotions. We get plenty of speeches telling us what characters’ motivations are–Why does she stay with him? How does he come to recognize his own delusions?–but these are generally a poor substitute for having an experiential sense of the people involved that allows us to see these motivations for ourselves.

The Verdict

Do I think this was the best film of 2001? No. Neither though can I muster too much outrage at its victory. If the film were venerated today more than I think it is, my objections might be louder and more persistent. Absent inflated claims that I don’t really hear coming from any quarter, I am content to let it stand as a well done commercially polished biopic with some top notch acting and an earnestness that while not winning me over does not really grate.

And the older, more mellow me, is happy for Ron Howard that he has the respect of and some recognition from his peers.

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