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Crowe's 'Mind' is sharp

The actor's Oscar-worthy performance as troubled mathematician John Nash is the heart of an uneven movie.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 25, 2001


photo
[Photo: Universal Studios]
Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind hinges entirely on the excellent acting turned in by Russell Crowe as a tormented mathematician.
Russell Crowe isn't just another pretty face. Heck, he isn't even that pretty, but scowling hasn't seemed this sexy since Richard Burton. Nearly forgotten over the past year of scandals, celebrity and rock 'n' roll is that Crowe is an enormously gifted actor expanding his range with each role.

Don't love Russell Crowe for his body. Love him for A Beautiful Mind.

Crowe will earn a third consecutive Academy Award nomination for his intense portrayal of emotionally tortured mathematician John Forbes Nash. Bet on it. He has the momentum after winning for Gladiator, a role to make voters sit up and take notice, and a performance to make them stand and applaud. Crowe reinvents himself, less macho than cops and warriors, and less mealy than The Insider. It's time to compare him with young Brando, a hunk with terrific acting instincts.

Nash is a compelling true-life figure, a brilliant man whose drive to leave his mark on science makes him a loner. Crowe plays him with a shy mumble and eyes that rarely turn from the floor. He's cracking from the first time we see him, but a brash confidence somehow comes through. "I'm quite well-balanced," Nash assures a classmate. "I have a chip on both shoulders."

Director Ron Howard doesn't skimp on details of Nash's college life at Princeton in the late 1940s. Nash is pushed around by mental bullies who sense him as an intellectual threat. He finds his breakthrough idea in an unlikely situation -- admiring a woman in a bar -- to create a theory of governing dynamics with worldwide implications. Perhaps even in the Cold War.

The film skips to 1953 and a Pentagon meeting with CIA agents led by William Parcher (Ed Harris), who insists that Nash is the best enemy code breaker ever. Nash accepts an offer to be a spy with a security sensor implanted in his arm, scouring publications for codes the Russians may have sneaked in. Things get dangerous, and Nash wants out. But Parcher keeps pulling him in.

At the same time, Nash reluctantly is teaching at Princeton, the price he pays for an office and research assistants. One student is Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), who becomes his wife. She doesn't know about the CIA pressures. When Alicia finds out, the depths of his involvement and endangerment are greater than anyone expected.

Nash's feelings of paranoia develop into schizophrenia to the point that anything could be a delusion. Howard bungles these conflicts between reality and psychosis by taking fantasy too literally. Explaining which parts go wrong would spoil the plot, but you'll recognize when the tactic gets silly. The third act of A Beautiful Mind drags out the obvious, then shifts into a feel-good finale that massages our entertainment reflexes.

Akiva Goldsman's screenplay doesn't always make the transitions smooth, changing the feelings of some characters without much, if any, explanation. Howard employs some nifty optical effects to illustrate the workings of Nash's mind, but the rest of his delivery is almost too straightforward. The filmmaker trusts his story and the actors playing it out.

Front and always center is Crowe, a magnetic presence even when he's playing shy. We fear for Nash's safety and pity his condition, but there isn't any doubt of his constitution. That's an uncommon accomplishment, especially for an actor who could be sailing on sex appeal. Aside from one scene in a tight T-shirt, this is as far from Maximus as you can imagine.

A Beautiful Mind

  • Grade: B+
  • Director: Ron Howard
  • Cast: Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Adam Goldberg, Judd Hirsch, Christopher Plummer
  • Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Sylvia Nasar
  • Rating: PG-13; mature themes, sensuality, brief violence, mild profanity
  • Running time: 130 min.

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