Winner of the 2019 Best Picture Review poll

In deference to the idea that negativity is hard on your body and mind, I would like to begin talking about A Beautiful Mind, winner of the 74th Oscar for Best Picture, with my compliment. Starting right at the studio logos, we hear a really lovely motif in the score composed by James Horner, something beautiful and ghostly and light, carried on the back of wordless vocalisations by an unseen female voice, and with just a tinge of minor-key menace. It is the fantastic opening to a very fine score, and it gives the film a really peculiar, nervy kick right as we sit down to watch it, and it's really just a very lovely, insightful bit of music writing.

So now that's out of my system.

Look, it's not that A Beautiful Mind is some kind of excessively heinous or wretched or evil piece of filmmaking. Put in context, and remember that this was director Ron Howard's very next feature after the repulsive live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas from 2000, and the enormous gap between this and "heinous" becomes immediately clear. It's just profoundly, exhaustingly mediocre, a fussily overdone bit of mindless prestige filmmaking that ranges from boring to to mannered to claustrophobic, while assuming that because it can plonk the words "based on a true story" in its advertising campaign, it automatically gains some level of intellectual weight. We still get a few of these every Oscar season, and in the '90s and early '00s, we got what felt like a couple dozen every month; the most interesting point of distinction about A Beautiful Mind is that unlike almost all of the other really mediocre Oscarbait, it actually won four statues. And that amplifies how bad it seems: I no longer stand by my onetime claim that it's the second-worst Best Picture of all time, but it's definitely in the bottom tier.

The film is a biopic of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash that's fudged so many of the details of his life (or just outright deleted them) that the filmmakers, including Howard, producer Brian Grazer, and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, were obliged to whip up some cock-and-bull thing about how it was actually supposed to be fake, because it was more about crafting a subjective experience of schizophrenia than the nuts and bolts of Nash's life. Which is even sort of defensible, given the way that Goldsman's screenplay parcels out the twists that do the most to build out that subjectivity. On the other hand this doesn't seem to be a very good depiction of the subjective experience of schizophrenia, or of much of anything else that movies can depict.

The film's version of Nash, whoever he is, is played by Russell Crowe, at the peak of his importance as a movie star. Of course, Crowe was never actually a star in the strict sense; he always had a character actor's drive to refashion himself as needed for each new part rather than rest on his persona and screen presence. And in A Beautiful Mind, he chomps onto the role of Nash with eager will, trying to reshape his body and voice and face to fit the part of a socially inept West Virginia genius. All of which makes it sound like I'm complimenting the performance, which is absolutely not the case: Crowe's Nash is, in fact, rather dismal. It's a routine, clichéd performance of movie autism, with a lot of robot-steady line deliveries and stiff-limbed body language, which combined with the prim precision of the accent leads a terribly brittle quality to every beat of the performance. Worse yet, you can see Crowe putting in effort: he's obviously worked out exactly how each line needs to be emphasised, how to move around spaces, how to orient himself towards the other actors, and it is exhausting. Perhaps, maybe, the point is supposed to be that being John Nash is exhausting itself; but I don't feel like I'm watching Nash struggle through the world, I feel like I'm watching Crowe do his acting exercises, which have accidentally been recorded and put in the final cut.

Crowe's mannered screen presence is the most tangible problem with the film, since it is the brick wall between the viewer and the film's ability to function as a character drama; but it is far from the only problem. Indeed, other than Horner's contributions, the film is almost exclusively made of problems. It's such a drab bit of middlebrow nothing that even the mighty cinematographer Roger Deakins can't make much of it, leading to a film that is besotted with oddly yellowed lighting (which it employs inconsistently) and flat overlit daytime interiors (it is telling that the film, which was the front runner for the whole of awards season, didn't count Best Cinematography among its eight Oscar nominations). And if Deakins can't get anything out of the film, what prayer had the rest of these people? Howard, never an inspired director, pushes the material through with a dreadful sameness: whether Nash is chatting with his generic, interchangeable colleagues, flirting with his future wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly, perfectly fine in a subtext-free role that actively closes off paths to be any better; certainly, there's nothing in here that suggests that her Oscar victory makes a lick of sense), or attending with growing paranoia to CIA contact (Ed Harris) who has recruited him to be a codebreaker, the rhythm of scenes and visual strategies are more or less identical. Just about the only trick Howard brings to bear that's even a little interesting is his visualisation of Nash's superhuman ability to see patterns, which consist of little glowing numbers floating off the page. "Interesting", I said, not "good"; it's corny and doesn't really get at the point it's trying to make (the numbers and letters that catch Nash's eye seem to be chosen at random), and most importantly, it thoroughly fails to make the business of doing math even slightly interesting to look at.

That might be the film's crowning problem; we have to pick something. The whole idea of everything from the title on down is that Nash, despite his troubles separating reality from imagination, and his incapability of relating to other humans, had a (get this) beautiful mind, one capable of finding amazing connections that nobody else could see, and as long as it was shaped and helped by the Power of Love, his math could truly serve to better us all. The beauty of the beautiful mind, that is to say, lies in the contrast between its mathematical precision and its raggedness everywhere else, and the thing is, A Beautiful Mind is unbelievably fucking terrible at explaining math. Big words get used a lot, elaborate forms are drawn on windows and boards, glowing bits of shit float off pages, and none of it makes any sense - not even in the movie-science way, where even if you can't follow the details, you still know what the end result is. Math, as it is handled here, is basically just a pretext for a superficial story of schizophrenia; but math also takes up an enormous quantity of screentime. And every minute of that screentime is annoyingly anti-cinematic, anti-dramatic, and anti-visual. Maybe if John Nash had been the world's greatest schizophrenic architect, or something, the film might have worked out better, but putting math on top of the slick, shallow treatment of living with mental illness just means that in addition to being trite, A Beautiful Mind is fuck-all boring on top of it.