Russell Crowe's acting distinguishes "A Beautiful Mind," an engrossing though blatantly sentimental tale of triumph over adversity. 

Perfect Equation

From its opening frame, one can't help but be struck by how old-fashioned "A Beautiful Mind" feels. Yes, all the recognizable '50s hallmarks are there — girls in skirts with saddle shoes, cars with "fins" and narrow-lapeled government men in black. But that feeling of another time comes more from the delicate manner in which director Ron Howard unfurls this tale of academia, mathematics, genius and mental illness. Despite last year's "Grinch," Howard does this kind of inspiring character study as well as anyone. And as he demonstrated with "Apollo 13," when it comes to translating complex scientific concepts into compelling filmmaking, nobody does it better.

Russell Crowe adds to his impressive body of work, starring as John Nash, a Princeton mathematician whose career encompassed early fame, decades of struggle with schizophrenia, and, finally, the achievement of a lifetime. Though Crowe played another man of science in the 1999 Oscar-nominated "The Insider," here he's doing something totally different. As Nash, Crowe once again disappears into his role, becoming the character. A lesser actor might fall victim to turning his portrayal into a melange of tics and obsessive-compulsive behaviors, playing to the audience with a shorthand language of craziness. But not Crowe, instead of overdoing Nash's nervous habits and movements, he makes them an integral part of a deeply troubled, complex man.

Spanning 47 years and drawn from the well-received biography of the same name by Sylvia Nasar, Akiva Goldsman's astute and clever screenplay begins with Nash's arrival at Princeton. Hardly normal Ivy League material, this West Virginia genius is socially inept and geeky, yet oddly hunky all the same. (Blame that on Crowe's on-screen charisma more than any acting prowess, however.) Refusing to attend classes or read assigned texts, Nash spends his days and nights in the library, searching for that one "truly original idea" that will be his trademark so to speak, his crowning achievement in his chosen field.

Urged to lighten up a little by his hard-drinking British roommate, Charles (Paul Bettany), Nash seeks insight and inspiration from such unexpected sources as the seemingly random movement of pecking pigeons or the group dynamic of five college boys all wanting to take a shot at the sole pretty blonde in a bar.

By 1953, Nash's brilliance has been rewarded with a top position at MIT, where he is joined by former Princeton classmates Sol (Adam Goldberg) and Bender (Anthony Rapp). He is also paged by a secretive Defense Department operative, William Parcher (Ed Harris), who wants Nash to apply his superbrain to crack Russian messages hidden in popular newspapers and magazines. Slowly immersing himself in this espionage exercise in random patterns and possible conspiracies, Nash's worldview begins to skew.

At the same time Nash is making midnight drops of his "classified" findings, he's also being pursued by one of his students, Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly). Unlike Nash, Alicia knows what she wants and how to get it. So just as Nash is reaching the top levels of security clearance from Parcher for being the best natural code-breaker, he also enters into normal life by marrying Alicia, settling down and fathering a child.

But just as suddenly, his two worlds threaten to collide. The realization that there really are two worlds leaves us just as shaken as Nash. As a means to this particular stunning truth, Howard and Goldsman present scenes and characters early on in a straightforward manner, never hinting once that all we are seeing may not be genuine. So when the truth hits Nash — and the audience — the payoff is tremendous, giving us for one brief moment a keen appreciation for Nash's emotional stake in not acknowledging his illness.

As his two worlds continue on their collision course, Nash becomes totally unhinged and is carted away by a Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer at his well-modulated, scary best). Undergoing conventional insulin therapy to rid himself of delusions, the cure seems worse than the disease. While on his medications, Nash cannot make his superbrain function. He cannot work. And without his work, why live?

As first Nash's aggressive student than his loving wife, Alicia, Connelly takes another giant step away from her early teen-siren roles. While not quite as impressive as her performance in last year's disturbing "Requiem for a Dream," her portrayal here is quieter, sketchier, nonetheless credible. In a rare testament to love, she ultimately makes the decision on what John Nash's future will be.

Besides Connelly, the supporting characters — from Harris to Bettany to Judd Hirsch as Nash's Princeton advisor — make nary a misstep. But their performances are overpowered and overshadowed by Crowe's powerful and poignant portrait of mental illness. So complete is his Nash, his creation, that we forget we are watching the same man who donned sword and sandals for "Gladiator" or stole the affections of America's Sweetheart Meg Ryan seemingly nightly on the tabloids.

Despite Crowe's astounding acting, "A Beautiful Mind" never reaches greatness because of some awkwardness in the screenplay — mostly stemming from the movie's odd relationship to Nasar's biography and the true story of John Nash. Those who've read Nasar's book will find little similarity to Goldsman's screenplay. For the screenwriter has filed down all the rough edges and inconvenient facts (among the most blatant — John and Alicia's eventual divorce), allowing for a more camera-friendly depiction of mental illness and a life story that can be plugged into Hollywood's standard inspirational drama formula.

Regardless of its often obvious manufactured niceness, "A Beautiful Mind" is always compelling. No matter from whence come the emotions, Crowe's heartfelt and amazing performance will keep you riveted. And when the finale comes, complete with James Horner's sweeping music, and all the hearts and flowers Howard can muster, it doesn't matter. You will be

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