A Beautiful Mind stands alone among the films the studios held back for year's end, when so-called Oscar candidates, so smugly serious and pretentiously overlong, are left to fill the holiday schedule. It's everything most movies this year have not been: deeply felt, genuine, gracious. It's the film Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky wanted to be but isn't because it has so little faith in its audience -- a movie about the muddled life of the fractured mind, where "reality" is an empty, useless word. For the longest time, we have no idea what's real and what isn't to John Nash, who, at least early in his life, sees resolution where others only perceive chaos. Goldsman and director Ron Howard (who, at long last, delivers a film worthy of his beloved reputation) place us inside Nash's head until we feel as dizzy and baffled and frustrated as he -- even those who go in knowing the outcome of his life's story.
The film opens on the Princeton campus in 1947, where a young Nash (played by Russell Crowe as though he's hiding a remarkable secret) has come to prove himself the greatest mind of his generation; he is standoffish and self-absorbed, unable and unwilling to make friends of his fellow students. "I don't like people," he explains through a soft Suth'n accent and the mischievous smile of the man who knows everything but feels nothing, "and they don't like me." One classmate describes him as a man with two brains and half a heart; Nash, a shuffling mass of tics, concurs, insisting he's well balanced only because "I have a chip on both shoulders." He has but one friend on campus, a roommate named Charles (A Knight's Tale's Paul Bettany), and theirs is a peculiar relationship -- that, more or less, of a man and his muse.
Nash, a man without Ivy League pedigree, wants only to matter, and when he makes his mark with a doctoral thesis about game theory -- "His insight," Nasar wrote in her book, "was that the game would be solved when every player independently chose his best response to the other players' best strategies" -- Nash is unable to distinguish between accomplishment and its attendant recognition. To him, it was merely inevitable he would be recognized as a genius.
In 1953, Nash is called on by the government to crack Russian codes, which he can do by staring, endlessly, at seemingly random strings of letters. His acumen brings him to the attention of a man in black named Parcher (Ed Harris), who insists to Nash that the Russians are communicating to each other in newspaper articles and ads; in time, Nash comes to find meaning in everything, no matter how meaningless. For him, there is no such thing as coincidence -- and, for a while, we are left to wonder whether such work has indeed rendered him crazy and paranoid. Inevitably it takes a toll on his life and love for Alicia Lardes (a remarkable Jennifer Connelly), the student who seduced, then married, the teacher. Their relationship began couched in a mathematician's magic -- in one remarkable scene that bounds between the saccharine and the sanguine, Nash uses his finger to light up constellations in the night's sky for Alicia -- only to wind up as a torturous, dangerous mess.
In time, Nash is committed to a mental hospital, where Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer) gives him the diagnosis of schizophrenia. He's forced to endure shock treatment, and the bright light inside him dies a little; Crowe's face grows slack, his eyes dim, his body goes flaccid. In the years to follow, he will come back to life and reopen his eyes, if only to stare down the demons who've taken shape. But the John Nash of Princeton 1947 is but a myth -- a half-forgotten legend, at least until the 1980s and '90s, when his theories had become so much a part of the culture that they were taken for granted.
As a romance, between a madman and the woman who idolized him and loved him and never left him even after his descent into illness, it's wrenching. As a thriller, about Nash's secretive work for the government and its shadowy operatives, it's captivating. And in the end, it's a film about which one doesn't want to say too much; it plays almost like The Sixth Sense, in a way, where things seen aren't always to be believed. To decipher them here would ruin the ambiguity, spoil the romance and dull the ache. What could well have been a lachrymose exercise, of the sort Howard's known for fashioning, is instead as haunting and long-lasting as a reverie -- or a hallucination, perhaps. Appropriate, indeed.