A Beautiful Mind is filled with wonder, poignancy, suspense, passion and revelation. But most of all, it's filled with a sense of achievement - of a man who spent his life doing what everyone told him was impossible, and of a filmmaker exercising creative muscles we never knew he had.
Based - loosely - on the life of mathematician and Nobel laureate John Forbes Nash Jr., A Beautiful Mind offers Russell Crowe what certainly should be his second straight Oscar-nominated performance. His Nash starts the film as that most cliched of intellectual stereotypes, the brilliant, haughty mind without an ounce of common sense or social graces in his million-dollar head. But Crowe and director Ron Howard take that character in thrilling directions well out of the realm of the ordinary.
In 1947, Nash has just arrived at Princeton. Reticent and socially awkward, he is both an enigma - his classmates know him only through vague rumblings about the "mysterious West Virginia genius" - and an annoyance. His entire adult life has been dedicated to one thing: formulating a truly original idea, one that will put him on the intellectual and historical map. Nothing else matters.
One evening, after watching his classmates unsuccessfully hit on women in a crowded bar, that idea comes to him. His game theory, reducing competition to a mathematical formula, gets him noticed. His reward: a research and teaching position at MIT.
Still, Nash isn't satisfied. The generation of mathematicians who preceded him had helped win World War II, and he's convinced his place in history won't be assured until a similar opportunity presents itself to him. It does, in the person of CIA operative William Parcher (a spooky Ed Harris), who recruits Nash as a secret agent in the Cold War. Soon, Nash is deciphering secret messages everywhere: in magazine articles, newspaper advertisements, wherever a few words can be found strung together. At last, he's making a difference.
And at last he's got someone to share his life. Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly) once was Nash's student; now she's his devoted wife, tolerant of his eccentricities because of the charismatic man she knows is at his core. Theirs is not an easy romance, but it appears to be a lasting one - even if Nash can't share the secret of his double-life with her.
But then things start to unravel, as first Nash's cover is blown, and then mental illness threatens both his career and his marriage. Life keeps throwing curve after curve at Nash, and his ability to handle them declines rapidly. Can even his extraordinary mind handle such constant, ever-changing pressure?
For those who know little about the real-life Nash, who won his Nobel Prize in 1994, much of the enjoyment comes from the unexpected turns the story keeps taking. As one plot thread starts wearing thin, another jumps up in its place, or a new twist sends Nash (and the audience) careening off in unforeseen directions. Those familiar with Nash's story may know in advance how he eventually deals with his mental illness. But for them, watching how the story gets to where it's going should be just as thrilling.
As good as Crowe and Harris are, they almost are upstaged by Connelly, as captivating as she is resilient as Alicia. Previous directors have seemed intent on playing off her luminous beauty by casting her in the roles of cold, distant, emotionally battered characters (Dark City, Requiem for a Dream). Here, she's allowed to show a full range of emotions, and the effect is riveting.
A Beautiful Mind is the best film yet from director Howard, whose career has spanned the sublime (Splash, Parenthood), the painful (Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas) and the accomplished (Apollo 13). In a career marked by straight-ahead storytelling, this film, with its many twists, turns and misdirections, offers challenges beyond the scope of his earlier efforts. That he is able to meet them without any signs of strain should forever silence critics who insist Howard is a lightweight.
If Howard were a mathematician, A Beautiful Mind could stand as his one truly original creation.
A Beautiful Mind
Starring Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly
Directed by Ron Howard
Released by Universal Pictures
Running time 129 minutes
Sun score ****