Since its release to commercial and critical success in 2001, and doubly so since receiving the 74th Academy Award for Best Picture, A Beautiful Mind has received a great deal of criticism for many things. Prominent among them are its omission of many aspects of John Forbes’s life and personality – such as his anti-Semitic outbursts, alleged bisexuality and marital infidelities – that might have made him too controversial or hard to like, its casting of white actress Jennifer Connelly as his Hispanic wife Alicia, as well as its depiction of his real-life auditory hallucinations as elaborate fantasies involving an imaginary best friend and a fictional government agent.
All of these criticisms are valid, but it is the modification of the nature of Nash’s hallucinations that poses the biggest problem as it synthesizes all the film’s shortcomings in a nutshell. Rather than try and creatively convey the experience of progressively sinking into one’s own world of delusions and conspiracies, Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman resort to the much easier tried-and-tested tactic of adopting their protagonist’s troubled point of view in order to draw the viewer into his fantasy world, essentially treating schizophrenia less as a crippling mental condition and more as a means to thrill and excite.
Adopting the point of view of a person in the process of losing their mind and deriving thrills from it is not an inherently bad thing. Notable sufferers Guy De Maupassant and Edgar Allan Poe drew from their own personal struggles to write such harrowing tales as “The Horla” or “The Tell-Tale Heart”. The power of these stories lies less in the horrific nature of the events or thoughts described by the narrator and more in the vividness with which he describes them. Like those short stories, the best mystery thrillers told from the point of view of mad protagonists are not content with exploiting their condition for excitement and scares; they take the viewer on a trip inside their minds in order to better understand them as characters. They are not necessarily intended to be “realistic” as a video project made by psychiatrists about their patients might be. Rather, they are audiovisual renditions of their characters’ states of mind and emotions. The labyrinth of memories and visions explored by the titular character in David Cronenberg’s Spider and the slow dance towards the precipice of self-annihilation undertaken by the two protagonists of William Friedkin’s Bug are two of the most successful recent examples of such an approach; gothic dramas that placed their characters in genre narratives and used these narratives as a canvas to paint their feelings on.
A Beautiful Mind’s attempt to apply such a narrative to Nash’s schizophrenia fails due to the blatant falseness of the conspiracy subplot and Howard & Goldsman’s complete lack of appropriate distance from his subject. They lose sight of the paradox that makes Nash’s story so rich in potential – that his uncommonly logical mind formed theories that enabled a better understanding of a reality it was itself incapable of fully recognizing and appeared less functional when operating more closely within it. Their choice to turn his paranoia into a standard Cold War thriller reduces the unexplainable terror of irrational fears and their tenacious grip on the human mind to a matter of car chases, gunshots and imaginary friends. It doesn’t help that the intended “twist” – again cheapening a real person’s suffering by making it exciting rather than frightening – is rendered predictable by the way Ron Howard films the hallucination scenes with many heavy-handed hints that dull their effectiveness. It’s like he saw The Sixth Sense and was attempting to imitate its foreshadowing: Imaginary best friend Charles (Paul Bettany) and shadowy government agent Parcher (Ed Harris) almost invariably make their presences known on the soundtrack before appearing on screen, and there’s usually a fairly wide shot of Nash alone in the room without them in the frame after their exit is confirmed.
Scenes that supposedly portray Nash’s daily struggles with schizophrenia do not fare much better. Howard’s typical emotional button-pushing imprisons Russell Crowe’s dedicated performance in a series of pity paintings that rarely allow him to do more than tug at heartstrings. Whether he’s bluntly insulting his coworkers’ intelligence or awkwardly expressing sexual desire towards his future wife, the scenes never truly allow the actors to go beyond their parameters and show the audience anything new. When he’s not drowning him in James Horner’s aggressively maudlin score or making his mental illness a quirky and “funny” character trait, Howard attempts to showcase his mathematical genius by flashing numbers and letters from papers and boards, as well as background elements forming patterns. Aside from being a lazy technique that Howard would later repeat in his atrocious The Da Vinci Code, it’s a distracting gimmick that fails to immerse the audience into Nash’s mindset.
A particularly egregious example of Howard’s trite Hollywoodian sentimentality can be found in the scene where Nash is shown a (unsurprisingly) fictional ritual in which fellow Princeton academics pay tribute to a noted member by placing pens on his table. It’s an obvious setup for a “triumphant” echo later in the film where Nash gets the same treatment as an old man, serving no other purpose than to deliver gratuitous artificial emotions to the audience in lieu of communicating anything profound about Nash’s desire for recognition.
All these cheap tricks further diminish the effects of the film’s rare moments of genuine emotion and humanity – such as when Alicia first visits John in the mental hospital and tries to convince him that he really is sick – and expose the thriller subplot’s artifice and incongruity. Visionaries like Michel Gondry, Terry Gilliam or Ken Russell could have made it work by using their genuine understanding of how pop culture images and politics affect our perceptions of reality and turning it into a delirious trip inside the protagonist’s head. Being only a competent filmmaker used to making entertaining but unsophisticated crowd-pleasers, all Ron Howard can do is make a clunky Oscar-bait machine disguised as yet another inspirational tale about love conquering all. Sadly, it worked.