Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind is the story of John Forbes Nash, Jr., a mathematical genius who invented the concept for game theory, which has since been applied to everything from economics to biology. But despite his genius - or perhaps, because of it - Nash also suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a condition which nearly caused his skills (not to mention his life) to go to waste.
The film follows Nash through five decades of his academic career, his relationship with his wife Alicia, and his various demons and difficulties, until in 1994 when Nash was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Fascinating as Nash's story is, a story that is more or less about a man's mind can be incredibly difficult to transfer to cinema. Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman almost pull it off. Unfortunately, the section of the plot in which Nash discovers his schizophrenia is so weakly developed and shoddily explained that it just about sinks the entire middle third of the film.
The filmmakers simply can't find a way to make the plot twist revealing Nash's very real mental illness look any different from the numerous recent films (Fight Club, Vanilla Sky) in which "crazy" characters think they're seeing things that they're not really seeing - a scene which, invariably, looks odd no matter what film it's in. The second-act plot twist is executed so poorly that it comes dangerously close to this recent trend of filmmakers thinking themselves brilliant just because they can fool their audiences - and it's inexcusable for a film as promising as A Beautiful Mind to suddenly turn into Vanilla Sky for 20 minutes.
It takes masterful performances by Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly (as Nash and his wife Alicia) to pull the film out of this rut and into a more than satisfactory final hour. Even though he makes the news more often for his romantic exploits, it's easy to forget what a brilliant actor Crowe can be, while Connelly is a fine actress who toiled in obscurity for far too long. Ed Harris is less impressive as a character who may as well have "shadowy operative" tattooed on his head; hasn't he played this role a few too many times? And Anthony Rapp and Adam Goldberg (as Nash's associates) appear together on-screen for the first time since Dazed and Confused.
Much has been made of this film leaving out parts of the source material dealing with Nash's homosexual tendencies, his separation from Alicia, and his propensity for violence and other unpleasantness. While all are more or less irrelevant to the film, why not a single reference to Nash's parents? They're not shown, not mentioned, and treated as though they didn't ever exist - an exploration of such could have added much to the film.
While A Beautiful Mind is a satisfying and mostly well-made picture, it is certainly not deserving of the near-unanimous praise it has received in the US since its release. Ron Howard (Richie Cunningham from Happy Days) will likely be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award and while it's great to see a director improve with age, it would be more ideal for Howard to finally get the award for the masterpiece that he may very well still have in his mind. Unfortunately, this is not it.