Opie Dumbs It Down Again for Us with A Beautiful Mind

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



Before A
Beautiful Mind
, Ron Howard was the last director you’d expect to make
a movie about intellection–and he still is. Howard takes the tortured life
of John Forbes Nash Jr., the Princeton mathematician who went through a long
bout of schizophrenia yet eventually shared the 1994 Nobel Prize for economic
science, and turns it into a trite, maudlin fabrication. It’s a lowbrow
version of the mess just recently made of writer Iris Murdoch’s life in
Iris. Instead of bifurcating one person’s existence into facile
dichotomies of blooming youth and crusty age as in Iris, Howard and his
screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (screenwriter of Lost in Space) go inside
Nash’s head–selectively depicting his reality and his delusions–to
make the baffling things he went through for nearly 50 years more conventionally
"exciting."


This reduction
occurs primarily to make Nash’s story less frightening. (Less It-could-happen-to-you
and more Don’t-you-wish-it-happened-to-you?) That’s how crazy the
thinking is in Hollywood. Producer Brian Grazer, who optioned Nash’s story
after reading a Vanity Fair article detailing the scientist’s plight-and-triumph,
claims, "I saw that the story could present a visceral experience for an
audience." Not an intellectual experience–which is to say, not an
emotionally credible one, but an emotionally deceptive experience. Beginning
in 1947 when Nash (Russell Crowe) arrives in Princeton from West Virginia, the
story concentrates on Nash’s paranoid fear, following the U.S. deployment
of the atomic bomb, of the government coopting the scientific community. He
becomes a reluctant version of Indiana Jones; recruited by a shadowy operative,
William Parcher (Ed Harris), who enlists him in secret-agent code-breaking projects;
and eventually brings his mounting anxieties home to his Bond-girl wife Alicia
(Jennifer Connelly). Through such high-concept traducements, A Beautiful
Mind
pays tribute to the mass audience’s anti-intellectual tendency.
And it goes further: Nash’s later years are portrayed as harmless doddering.
The uplifting condescension presents him as a lovable schizo, a modern day
Mr. Chips–still puttering around Princeton, patting his delusions instead
of former students on their heads.


Hollywood’s
fear of bringing viewers into the verbal, numerical, theoretical world of science
and economics parallels the Brit pretense of literacy in Iris (what few
Murdoch quotations those filmmakers used were contradictory; they sounded literate
rather than conveying a coherent, perhaps troubling or bonkers philosophy).
The entertainment cliches that constantly degrade Nash’s story satisfy
the filmmakers more than they make a harried intellectual life believable or
interesting. First A Beautiful Mind depicts Nash competing among his
brash Ivy League rivals, then his dorm pranks and pub-crawling. Socially awkward,
his crude pursuit of generic blondes is what inspires him to develop the "game
theory" of economics that would later lead to his Nobel Prize. But is it
necessary to vulgarize the Nobel citation for "pioneering analysis of equilibria
in the theory of non-cooperative games" into Porky’s?


Howard exposes
his misunderstanding of the material. Like so many Hollywood hands, he’s
more committed to furthering industry technology (and spending) rather than
dramatizing how an insider like Nash (or themselves) stays remote from political
scrutiny and self-examination. In an introductory scene, Nash is at a Princeton
mixer when he notes the geometrical shapes of a shadow and sun glare on a tabletop
and scans for its exact complement in the design pattern on a fellow student’s
wardrobe: "You have no idea how bad that tie is," Nash insults him.
Already, in this early scene, Howard confuses Nash’s one-upmanship–his
drive to find "a truly original idea"–with f/x sleight of hand.
This scene, filled with technological industry trends, mismatches visual dazzle
with Nash’s own idiosyncrasy (esthetics with science?) to no point except
to seem ingenious. It’s like the moment Nash goes to MIT and gets
drafted into the Office of Strategic Services’ (OSS) inner sanctum; Howard
showcases Nash in the midst of a dazed new world, with computers and illuminated
figures on wall-sized screens. When he’s courting Alicia, the couple stands
outside stargazing and Howard features another f/x spectacle similar to the
constellation grids on the ceiling of Grand Central station. It’s a wow,
but why? These gimmicks take the story out of any realistic context. With no
possibility of judging how or when Nash slips into dementia, we can only share
the dislocation as (in the wretched Hollywood parlance of our day) "a ride."


It’s no
joke that when the arrogant Nash tells someone, "You have no respect for
cognitive reverie!" he could be accusing Howard. To portray Nash’s
inner turmoil, Howard shows a desk being pushed out of Nash’s dorm window–it’s
loud and overscaled simply to keep the audience from being bored. But the crude
appreciation he’s after is worse. Predisposed against intellectual filmmaking,
Howard’s falling back on Nash and Alicia’s romance, car chases and
shootouts was inevitable. But it wasn’t imperative. George Miller’s
Lorenzo’s Oil paced its characters’ intellectual processes
to an intriguing narrative rhythm (and there are other examples of fleet, erudite
storytelling in Amistad, Three Kings, Trixie, even
the jokey Being John Malkovich). Howard indulges the notion of idiot
savantry–making Nash cuddly rather than intimidating–as part of his
chosen alternative to avoid the un-American suggestion of intellectual arrogance.




No filmmaker
panders to the concept of the popular audience more than Ron Howard. The French
have not yet fallen for cinema d’Opie, but many Americans have,
contributing to his box-office take as dutifully as if paying taxes in Mayberry.
Howard’s commercial significance is worth serious note (and critique) because
he is part of the tv-to-film industry movement that, since the early 80s, has
been responsible for the dumbing-down of feature films. His big-budget movies,
with their inflated production values, ironically tend to oversimplify everything
(labor politics in the surprisingly observant Gung-Ho, senility in Cocoon,
family in Parenthood, adventure-fantasy in Willow, masculine competition
in Backdraft, immigrant class struggle in Far and Away, media
ethics in The Paper, American militarism in Apollo 13, moneyed
isolation in Ransom, reality television in EdTV and commercialism
in last year’s execrable How the Grinch Stole Christmas). In all
those movies Howard’s infernal blend of wholesomeness and blandness frustrates
any fascination.


It is Howard
who commits the blatant sentimentality people blame on Spielberg. Despite the
range of topics he has taken on, Howard’s films always tell audiences exactly
what they already know about the subjects. (You could easily imagine A Beautiful
Mind
becoming a tv sitcom, Those Crazy Eggheads!) Offering no surprises
is probably why Howard doesn’t confound viewers and critics as has Spielberg.
Never threatening to expand audience consciousness, Howard seduces them with
reassuring cliches. What he purveys is essentially a tv esthetic–just like
the even more offensive Michael Mann. (Surprisingly, Howard has evinced a stronger
visual sense than the mindlessly flashy Mann. Cinematographer Roger Deakins
gives A Beautiful Mind a full-color version of his film-noir gloss in
The Man Who Wasn’t There, then shifts to greeting-card hominess.)


Nondiscriminating
viewers might think Howard’s anything-for-a-laugh-or-tear technique is
the basis of pop entertainment, but in A Beautiful Mind it’s just
a mess of clashing moods. "Who among you will be the vanguard of democracy,
freedom, discovery?" a professor challenges Nash and his classmates, yet
the film forsakes ambition for a flashier subject, conspiracy. This also gets
cheap, since, as it follows Nash’s exploits, his journey is at one point
identified as "The Pentagon 1953–Five Years Later." Does Opie
think his audience can’t add?


Adding to A
Beautiful Mind
’s problem is Russell Crowe–not an actor who
can convey thinking. Cute enough for Howard’s adorable-schizo concept,
Crowe approaches it scrupulously. His mock-shyness recalls Jeffrey Wright’s
childlike evasiveness as Basquiat–the same head-bobbing and index-finger-curling
as a form of sexy entreaty. (How ersatz can Hollywood get? Nash’s wife
may well have been a babe, but Jennifer Connelly sho nuff is, tilting
the film toward a romance yet not giving the able Connelly enough context to
make Alicia intellectually substantial.) So Crowe is left pushing the coy aspect
of ambitious people–making Nash strange and remote from the very beginning–that
Howard and Goldsman aren’t willing to confront in their hero. They completely
neglect his family and emotional background, keeping him generic. When Nash
becomes dangerous (even to himself), it seems mostly because Howard and Goldsman
are afraid of dark areas and sharp edges–the very things James Mason and
Nicholas Ray got at in the story of a 1950s instructor in Bigger than Life.
More recently, the underrated Mel Gibson accomplished what Crowe does not, giving
his finest performance yet as the paranoiac in Conspiracy Theory. That
film also ruined its potential with bogus entertainment values, but at least
it didn’t disgrace an actual person’s life or insult our capacity
to understand how a complex mind faces the complexities of private and political
responsibility. The shame of A Beautiful Mind is that it is an intellectual
sham.


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