As a graduate student at Princeton in the late '40s, John Forbes Nash Jr. developed the mathematical principles of "Game Theory," a breakthrough in modern economics that would earn him the Nobel Prize more than four decades later. For much of the interim, Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which ruined his marriage and pushed his already unconventional approach to mathematics into outright incoherence. "Inspired" by Sylvia Nasar's biography of the same name, perhaps because "based" means the filmmakers couldn't fudge as many of the facts, A Beautiful Mind operates under more stable economic formulae, buffing out the rough edges of Nash's story into easy-to-swallow inspirational swill. It would probably take a cracked genius to elucidate the workings of Nash's mind, but director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Ransom) has always hugged the middle of the road; his method for suggesting his hero's brilliance is circling the camera around his head. But as much as Howard's commercial instincts prevent him from getting inside Nash's faulty wiring, they also keep the film running smoothly and agreeably, driven by the force of Russell Crowe's eccentric and inspired lead performance. Playing a physically stout but socially awkward misfit from small-town West Virginia, Crowe bottles up his raging masculinity and suggests an inner weakling who looks genuinely uncomfortable within his hulking frame. Teased relentlessly by his peers at Princeton, Crowe skips class and retreats into his active imagination, working to find the "governing dynamics" behind the seemingly random movements of a touch-football game or a flock of pigeons on the school grounds. After earning the coveted Carnegie Fellowship for his revolutionary economic theory, he takes a teaching and research position at MIT, where he's occasionally called up by the Pentagon for his exceptional code-breaking skills. Around the time he's courting student and future wife Jennifer Connelly, Crowe gets an assignment from government agent Ed Harris to look for Communist codes in popular newspapers and magazines. By far the most compelling section of the film, Crowe's covert activities are intensified by his heightened creativity and Communist paranoia, which in turn causes his brain to play tricks on itself. But once his schizophrenia is spelled out in unbelievably pat terms, A Beautiful Mind sinks into predictably bathetic triumph-over-adversity material. It's not a crime for the script to gloss over the thornier aspects of Nash's story—his not-so-steadfast wife, his child out of wedlock, his arrest for indecent exposure—but the film seems totally unconvincing, squeezing a real life into a formula that's simultaneously more palatable and less interesting. If Howard placed Crowe in front of a piano, he'd be starring in Shine.
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