You know awards season is in full swing when an A-list actor turns up in a role that requires him to feign a crippling affliction and a regional dialect. The film is "A Beautiful Mind," director Ron Howard's biography of West Virginia-born, Nobel Prize-winning mathematician Dr. John Forbes Nash Jr. The actor is Aussie Russell Crowe, who won the Oscar for last year's "Gladiator." And adding one to the other proves a winning equation.
Crowe's Nash arrives at Princeton University as a graduate student in September of 1947, bringing with him a laissez-faire approach to scholastic discipline, an admitted lack of personal skills and a determination to distinguish himself intellectually at almost any cost. Skipping class, he engages in such activities as charting the logarithms that flocks of pigeons follow as they flit around campus. After a few years of self-directed inquiry, Nash has his big breakthrough, a theory on the mathematics of competition that contradicts the Adam Smith model of economics. By 1953, he's a respected genius working as a researcher and teaching on the grounds of MIT. His future seems stellar.
Anyone familiar with the real Nash's story -- or with this film's advertising campaign -- knows that his road to winning the Nobel in 1994 was anything but smooth. To avoid spoiling the cracking-good narrative concocted by scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman, let's leave it that the doctor had to wrestle with demons that were completely personal, yet not of his own making. Goldsman and Howard make that struggle real via a storytelling masterstroke that tricks us into seeing through Nash's eyes early on. By the time we spot the ruse, we are too involved to pull back. Crowe joins in with a performance that compiles any number of actorly mannerisms -- a head bowed in timidity, a nervous finger to the bridge of the nose -- then doles them out sparingly and without affectation.
The film's makeup design isn't quite as consistent. Though Nash looks totally believable at every stage of the story's 47- year span, his long-suffering wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), finishes the picture appearing as if she's been through one Melrose Avenue facelift too many. I could also have done without the repeated illustrations of Nash's romantic ineptitude. His attempt to talk a young woman into exchanging "bodily fluids" is one of several nearly identical gags Goldsman pencils in to appease the double-digit I.Q.s in the audience. Haw! He's a genius, but he cain't get laid!
Those quibbles aside, "A Beautiful Mind" is an affecting motion picture that confronts its subject head-on yet doesn't lay its life-affirming message on too thick. Howard's handful of visual statements are as controlled as Crowe's performance. There's particular refinement in the way certain numerals behave whenever Nash discerns a pattern to their seeming randomness: They raise themselves off the screen and begin to glow like the buttons on a Princess phone. Eureka! We get it, too.