Critics in two minds

A victim-driven script about mental health doesn't necessarily make A Beautiful Mind a bad film. Just as it doesn't make it a good one.

Fenno Outen

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It’s not unusual for critical opinion to be divided about a film. But the critics’ clash over A Beautiful Mind seems to be driven as much by differing evaluations of the filmmakers’ motives as it is by the film itself.

Ron Howard’s Oscar-nominated biopic stars Russell Crowe as mathematician John Forbes Nash, and charts his life from his university days to winning the Nobel Prize for economics 50 years later. In between, the bulk of the film shows Nash’s descent into schizophrenia.

Many critics have praised Crowe’s portrayal of his character’s schizophrenia. The UK Observer called him ‘impressive’ (1), while the New York Times said he displayed ‘superhuman powers of concentration’ and ‘a deep absorption in the logic of the character’ (2).

And mental health charities are delighted that the film portrays schizophrenia sympathetically. Some mental health workers campaigned against the Farrelly brothers’ 2000 film Me, Myself and Irene, in which Jim Carrey played a violent schizophrenic with a split personality. By contrast, the UK-based National Schizophrenia Fellowship says A Beautiful Mind shows ‘depth of understanding’ (3), while the charity SANE feels that Hollywood has done a ‘great service by not shrinking from the torment and devastation of this illness’ (4).

But outside the mental health field and in the world of culture, not everybody is so happy with A Beautiful Mind.

British cultural critic Mark Lawson has noted how this year’s Oscars nominations feature a high proportion of actors and actresses who play characters experiencing some sort of mental breakdown (three out of five in both the actor and actress categories) (5). Some critics have lumped A Beautiful Mind in with the fad for films about mental illness – objecting to contemporary culture’s headlong charge for a slice of the victimhood action.

Writing in the The Times (London), Barbara Ellen diagnoses Crowe as suffering from ‘affliction empathy’ or ‘Luvvie In A Wheelchair syndrome’ (6) – meaning that he wants to identify with the afflicted to subvert his own privileged lifestyle. She accuses Crowe of overacting, presumably because she feels he is so caught up in his own cathartic experience that he forgets to play the part. She seems to think that a pampered actor has no right to take up the victim mantle.

Charles Taylor on Salon describes the film as an ‘Oscar machine’ (7) – noting, as other have, that certain parts of Nash’s life and character have been left out in order to produce a more Hollywood-appropriate, easier-to-like victim.

In the UK Guardian, Peter Bradshaw notes the omission of the gay encounters in Nash’s life: ‘As portrayed by Russell Crowe, Nash may be a hollow-eyed, unshaven, gibbering, briefcase-hugging, equation-chalking nutter, but by golly he’s a red-blooded heterosexual nutter.’ (8) (Bradshaw’s tone suggests he is not overly impressed with Crowe’s depiction of insanity, either.)

But the trouble with these criticisms is that it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the reviewers’ stance on the etiquette of victimhood has too much bearing on their opinion of the film. Surely it matters only whether the pampered actor plays the victim well, and that the simplified (or politically incorrectly edited) story is dramatically effective?

It is understandable that some people (myself included) find society’s obsession with victimhood objectionable, and that this obsession is reflected in an increasing number of films – but it does not follow that those films are necessarily bad. Just as it doesn’t follow that they are necessarily good if they have motives that the critics approve of.

It is just as bad to attack a film for its imputed motives as it is to praise it for the same reasons. Perhaps Me, Myself and Irene and A Beautiful Mind have something in common after all.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

spiked-issue: Mental Health

(1) Observer 24 February 2002

(2) From Math to Madness, and Back, New York Times 21 December 2001

(3) Mental health charity targets media on back of Hollywood smash, NSF, 20 February 2002

(4) Comment by SANE on A Beautiful Mind, SANE, 13 February 2002

(5) Actors go mad for the Oscars, Guardian, 16 February 2002

(6) The Times (London), 21 February 2002

(7) A beautiful mind, Salon, 21 December 2001

(8) A Beautiful Mind, Guardian, 22 February 2002

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