Again, Crowe refuses to be stumped by formulas.


directed by Ron Howard with Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Ed Harris opens Dec. 21 at Pacific Place

SWING AWAY, RUSS. This year’s Academy Award for Gladiator certainly entitles you to bash a few nettlesome paparazzi, even if that brawny performance didn’t match your prior Oscar-nominated turn in The Insider. In truth, the brooding, internalized style of acting suits you better than the sword-swinging stuff, mathematician more than Maximus. So put those meaty forearms to use off the set; punch a few more photogs after your probable Feb. 12 Oscar nom for portraying Nobel Prize-winning schizophrenic John Forbes Nash Jr.

Aging from a fresh-faced 19-year-old Princeton grad student in 1947 to Nobelist in 1994, you convey the years’ toll convincingly. (The old-age makeup is excellent.) But it’s mental illness, not time, that’s director Ron Howard’s designated Obstacle to Overcome in A Beautiful Mind. Probably America’s most deliberate manufacturer of popular, feel-good uplift since Frank Capra, Howard here relies on an assembly-line script that feels committeed, audience-previewed, and focus-grouped to finely milled pabulum. Wearing narrow ties and herringbone suits, Nash’s Princeton buddies exist only to provide color and context for their genius friend’s descent into madness.

Granted, Russ, we know you’re straining against the maudlin material and reductive script. (Mind is only loosely based on Sylvia Nasar’s award-winning 1998 biography.) Young, arrogant Nash is peculiar and distracted, portending illness to come, but without dead-giveaway Rain Main tics. He’s functional enough to earn his Ph.D., then moves on to a defense lab at MIT, where he falls for a student hottie. Played by Requiem for a Dream‘s Jennifer Connelly, the underwritten Alicia predictably becomes his wife. (Later, we’ll know the guy is seriously disturbed when he won’t sleep with her.)

The breakdown comes after the relatively happy first hour of Mind, and Howard must be given credit for cleverly pulling the rug out from under both Nash and us. (A Knight’s Tale‘s scene-stealing Paul Bettany and Apollo 13 vet Ed Harris figure here.) He also integrates CGI effects nicely, as when Nash’s breakthrough idea about game theory is illustrated with a blonde in a bar.

You know the inevitable, triumphant outcome as well as we do, Russ. The trick is not to sink too far into the pathos and redemption—which you largely accomplish. Traces of Nash’s dry West Virginia wit are preserved through the fog of schizophrenia and medication. He eventually learns to ignore his delusions, “like a diet of the mind,” indicating typical Hollywood disregard for medical science (one simply wills oneself to sanity). As competent, affecting biopics go, Mind won’t win any prizes, but you’ve earned yourself the right for more awards consideration, mate.