Sunday, 26 September 2010

A Beautiful Mind - 30 Days of Crazy

This post is part of the Blog Cabins 30 days of crazy blogathon.

I have a confession to make... I chose 'A Beautiful Mind' as my blog-a-thon film because I thought I hated it.  I'd popped the film into the little box in my head marked 'crappy' and left it there since I first watched it years ago.  For some reason though, I was looking forward to re-watching it for this post, and here is the conclusion I have come to... it's bad... really really bad.

'A Beautiful Mind' tells the story of John Forbes Nash Jr.  He looks like this.

The film is based on a biography of the same name, written by Sylvia Nasar. It tells of his struggles to achieve greatness in the field of mathematics and, more interestingly (apparently) with his struggle to overcome paranoid schizophrenia.  It's written by Akiva Goldsman and directed by Ron Howard.

The film opens with Nash studying at Princeton.  He is coarse and uncomfortable and Russell Crowe festoons the character with a remarkable array of ticks.  He doesn't make eye contact, rubs his forehead, stutters and is painted with 'crazy' from the start.  His eccentric English roommate Charles is a lovely contrast to John's awkwardness. John is obsessed with having an 'original idea'.  He doesn't go to his classes, doesn't eat and takes his work to the campus bars.  The pretense of the film is therefore, ruined from the start.  John Nash is so obviously crazy that the audience immediately begins to question the set up. Why do none of his other friends talk to Charles?  

By the time I got to the main event - John's obsession with the Russians and certainty that he is being followed, the rest of the film is completely obvious.  What follows is a patronizing rundown of 'crazy man' cliches.  He's laughed at and mocked by students at the university.  He leaves his baby in a bath of water.  He falls out of his wheelchair in the mental hospital.  He realises his imaginary friends aren't real. He asks for another chance at Princeton.  He wins a nobel prize! Victory!  All is well again.  And he does all of it with perhaps the most syrupy, overly sentimental soundtrack I've ever heard.

The film takes a number of liberties with its source material.  Firstly, Nash's hallucinations were only ever auditory.  He never actually saw things that weren't there.  This would obviously present the filmmakers with a huge challenge and so the characters of Charles and Parcher were included to show his breakdown in a much more dramatic way.  The film describes Nash as taking 'newer medications' later in life when in fact he took none after 1970.  This was changed by the screenwriter in order to avoid the suggestion that denying medication can work for all schizophrenics. The film also misses out that Nash fathered a child before meeting Alicia but abandoned the family before the baby was born and that he and Alicia divorced in 1963, remarrying in 2001.  Again, I understand the reasons for missing out these facts but I can't help but feel, had they been included, the film would feel more real and less cliched.

I realise that many people love this film so, to make this a little more well rounded, there were things I liked.  The film looks lovely.  The period details are spot on - I love the Nash's kitchen.

You can't deny that Crowe puts in an impressive performance, especially in the later part of the film.  When they begin to age him and he returns to Princeton, his performance feels much more authentic and calm.  

Paul Bettany is wonderful in most things and he doesn't disappoint here.  The character was originally American but, after seeing Bettany in A Knights Tale, Howard and Goldsman changed their mind.  And who can blame them? If he played a variation of that character in everything he'd do all right.  

I think the heart of film belongs to Jennifer Connelly.  She won an Oscar for her performance and I really think she deserved it.  She is strong, vibrant and a pleasure to watch.  

I've been trying to decide what this film adds to the debate about the portrayal of the mentally ill in Hollywood.  I think films which deal with subject in a realistic way can be powerful and interesting, as well as entertaining.  Unfortunately 'A Beautiful Mind' is the other kind.  It’s a film that exploits sentimentality and cliché in an attempt to win awards.  It's a shame that the story of an obviously brilliant and complex man can be reduced to this.