Thursday, March 2, 2017

Interesting minds

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

A Beautiful Mind is one of the favourites for the Oscars, and probably deserves to win for best actor and best supporting actress at least. Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are both extremely resourceful and moving in their roles – there’s hardly a scene where one or the other doesn’t contribute something more surprising, subtle or moving than you would have expected.

Intellectual stature

It’s a very watchable movie all around. Crowe plays John Forbes Nash, a math prodigy who made several important breakthroughs in the 40s and 50s before his talents were severely compromised by acute schizophrenia. Nash drifted in and out of functionality for years before reemerging – his crowning achievement was the receipt of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994. Connelly plays his wife, who put up with so many years of turmoil. The film is directed by Ron Howard, who sometimes takes the notion of smooth craftsman almost to a new height (Apollo 13) but generally doesn’t (The Grinch) – ED TV, one of his least controlled films, may be one of his most intriguing.

One of the film’s faults is highly predictable – it glosses over Nash’s work, giving little sense of his real contribution (based on what’s shown, “An Interesting Mind” would be a better title). There’s a good scene in which a friend’s flippant application of Adam Smith to a pick-up situation leads Nash to make a sudden breakthrough in bargaining theory, but that’s about it (except for numerous shots of blackboards filled with equations). And according to an article in Slate magazine, the scene I mentioned doesn’t actually convey Nash’s theories accurately.

And at the end, when Nash makes his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he says not a word about the work, devoting his (very brief) remarks entirely to love and the human spirit. I went on the Nobel website to see if Nash’s speech was on there; it wasn’t, but I feel confident the movie doesn’t quite capture the full scope of his remarks. Not that the movie leaves Nash’s intellectual stature in doubt (particularly given Crowe’s persuasiveness), but you feel a bit short-changed.

The film has also been criticized for whitewashing Nash’s sexual history, particularly his numerous affairs with men. The movie’s Nash might well be a virgin at the time he meets his wife (a relationship in which she makes almost all the running). This wasn’t really as bothersome to me here. It’s not like, say, The Hurricane, in which the historical distortions were central to the film’s effect. There may be a fine movie to be made of Nash’s sexual history alone, but it’s a peripheral matter here.

Inner Life

The focus of A Beautiful Mind is on Nash’s struggle with mental illness. As such, the biggest problem for me is inherent in the structure. Halfway through the film, we learn that some of what we’ve seen to that point (including some entire characters) was merely Nash’s delusion. It’s an effective dramatic revelation, and marks I think the turning point in the film. But it’s also somewhat manipulative, treating the “beautiful” mind as a variation on the reality-bending tricks that drive the likes of Vanilla Sky. The movie’s second half, once we know what we’re dealing with, certainly felt much more honest and potent to me.

I think the fact that Nash’s inner world looks just the same as the film’s depiction of the outer world points to Howard’s limitations as a director. The film should have provided a rare opportunity to visualize an extreme subjective state. Howard does do some neat little tricks that illustrate Nash’s ability as a code-breaker, through sheer will and brilliance coaxing hidden meanings and structures out of text and numbers. But since some of these hidden codes later turn out to be merely a product of Nash’s imagination, it’s not clear at the end whether this illustrates his brilliance or his madness (maybe the point is that the two can hardly be distinguished).

Taken together, these criticisms seem to indicate excessive caution on the part of the filmmakers. A Beautiful Mind is a superior mainstream movie, but I don’t think there’s anything in it that truly transcends that category. Still, it’s very moving in its latter stages, and the acting really is a sight to see.

In the Bedroom

Todd Field’s In the Bedroom is another best film Oscar nominee. A middle-aged couple struggle to come to terms with the murder of their son, by his lover’s ex-husband. The film’s raw materials are somewhat familiar, but it’s raised to another level by its sensitivity, intelligence and reticence. Liam Lacey’s comments in the Globe and Mail are fairly typical – he called it “an impressive achievement, first of all for the quality of real life, especially the force of grief, that it captures…there has probably not been a more adult American film made in the last year.” Slate’s David Edelstein went even further, calling it “the best movie of the last several years.”

Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as the parents give generally quiet performances that occasionally erupt in anger and pain and frustration. The movie, similarly, starts in a gently paced depiction of a family and surrounding community, but becomes governed after the tragedy by shorter, more self-contained and pointed scenes. Although the film is in most senses slower and “smaller” than A Beautiful Mind, it creates a finer cinematic vocabulary. Field manages to support his actors fully (in general, the film seems driven by their needs more than A Beautiful Mind is driven by Crowe’s) without surrendering to them – you feel a deep-rooted fascination with the contours of their needs and secrets.

I don’t disagree with too much of the specific praise given to the film, but it seems I have a difference in how much value I place in its qualities. In the Bedroom seems to me inherently less interesting than say Chunhyang with its assured formal experimentation, or The Pledge with its metaphysical ambition, or Mulholland Drive with its overwhelming personal vision. And the last half hour of In the Bedroom, however well-executed, comes down to vigilantism. Not an old Charles Bronson cleansing shoot-em-up for sure – the ending here is ambiguous, seeped in uncertainty and self-delusion. Still, wouldn’t the most “adult American film” of the year work toward a more, well, adult resolution? See it and admire it, but retain a sense of proportion.

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