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Faux Diamond

Imagine that your boyfriend gave you a beautiful ring, white gold with a large emerald-cut stone. Imagine more that he told you its story, which was almost as precious as the gift itself: The ring was originally his grandmother's engagement ring, given to his grandfather by a dying French aristocrat with whom his grandfather served on the bloody battlefields in World War I. Imagine the rapture with which you might accept such a present. And now imagine your reaction when you learn your ring was purchased rather than inherited and that your boyfriend's grandfather never served in World War I, either in France or anywhere else.

Imagine, in fact, that you learn the stone isn't even a diamond, but a cubic zirconia. Actually, the ring is nice and hardly inexpensive. It's real gold, and it's pretty. But your boyfriend ruined it, didn't he, by representing it as something it isn't. Well, that's exactly the way I feel about Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind.

Adapted by screenwriter Akiva Goldsman from a book by Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind is the story of genius mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe), who is brought to Princeton in 1947 to study with, among others, the legendary Albert Einstein. Nash is a natively lonely fellow, preoccupied by a swirl of ideas and not a little arrogant. He doesn't want simply to master his field; he wants to break new ground, think thoughts no one has ever thought before. In that determination, he allows himself to become contemptuous of his fellow students with whom he maintains only an uneasy relationship. Socially, he's an unmitigated disaster. Faced with a chance for romance with an obviously willing young woman, he confesses his cluelessness about dating and wonders if she could imagine that he's said and done all the right things so they can proceed directly to an act of intercourse. Not surprisingly, he gets slapped rather than lucky.

Nash earns his doctorate, lands a prestigious appointment at MIT and proceeds to become a defiantly indifferent teacher. Despite this, he proves entrancing to a beautiful brunette student named Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) who agrees to marry him. At about the same time Nash is contacted by CIA agent William Parcher (Ed Harris) who enlists him as a top-secret code breaker trying to intercept communications from Russian spymasters to their operatives in the United States. What follows is Nash's attempt to balance a cherished family life with a demanding career and an unforeseen mental breakdown.

Niggling aspects of Goldsman's script fail to cohere into a satisfying narrative whole. We never do grasp why Alicia is so drawn to Nash. He's as clumsy and crude with her as he is with all the other women in his life. The same goes for Nash's relationships with his colleagues. He never seems to get along with anyone, yet two men who move with him from Princeton to MIT seem devoted to him. When a Dr. Rosen (Chistopher Plummer) appears to take Nash to a mental hospital, we don't know who has suggested such an action or on what basis.

After Nash's discharge, we don't know how he supports himself for what turns out to be a decades-long battle with schizophrenia. Most frustrating perhaps, we never do understand what Nash does. We gather that his revisions of economic theory undertaken by Adam Smith do constitute the breakthrough kind of thinking Nash always sought, but the film's two-sentence summary of this work sheds very little light. And we haven't a clue what else he gets up to.

Still, the film is impressively successful at suggesting the terror of schizophrenia. How does the sufferer know what is real and what isn't? At the same time, the picture reminds us how debilitating medication can be. Nash's mind is dulled by the drugs he has to take, and he is made sexually impotent. In telling this story with its intermittent passages of wrenching power, Howard is served well by another brilliant performance from Crowe and fine supporting turns by Connelly and Harris. The picture's ending tribute to loyalty and the saving grace of love is as moving as any recent moment in cinema.

But so much is false. John Nash is a real man, and this film is supposedly based on his life. But friends say the film's narrative barely resembles the life of Nash at all. Alicia and Nash are depicted as devoted soulmates, yet they divorced in 1963. He had a son by another woman, but neither is included in the film. Most seriously, the film suggests that Nash conquers schizophrenia through the application of his own brilliance and the fierceness of his own will. Inspiring, but entirely unlikely and perhaps dangerously misleading. This picture would go down much easier if it were billed as the fiction it is. Fascinating, isn't it, that a picture about a man who loses his grip on reality is made by filmmakers with butterfingers for what is real.

click to enlarge John Nash (Russell Crowe) struggles with genius and madness in A Beautiful Mind.
  • John Nash (Russell Crowe) struggles with genius and madness in A Beautiful Mind.
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