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Movies by Design

A Beautiful Mind is calibrated to win an Oscar; Amelie follows the "fake foreign film" blueprint

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Early in the fall, Hollywood tipsters began predicting that Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind would be the movie to beat for next spring's Best Picture Oscar. Studio-generated or not, that opinion is perfectly comprehensible now that I've seen the movie, a drama featuring Russell Crowe as the mentally troubled, Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. Not only does the film seem like exactly the kind of movie that might win the top Oscar, it seems the kind designed to win it. And yes, one may well wonder whether that's an insult or a compliment.

Given recent cinema history, it's inevitably a bit of both. One thing that struck me while watching A Beautiful Mind was how seldom these days Hollywood mounts dramas about ordinary people enduring real-life tribulations. Yet the flipside of that coin is that, when such a rarity does occur, it can't simply be an ordinary movie. Rather, it automatically gets blown up into an epic event, a heroic act, which in turn provides the pretext for an orgy of self-congratulation, Oscars, Golden Globes and all the rest.

So it is with A Beautiful Mind, a fascinating, exuberantly imagined and beautifully crafted film that's not entirely free of the whiffs of grandiosity and self-importance often associated with such Hollywoodian enterprises. In certain ways, the film's ambivalent qualities are built into its subject matter. From one angle, as suggested above, its appeal lies in showing us the struggles of real people like ourselves, rather than hobbits or Hogwartian wizards. At the same time, the man at this drama's center is far less ordinary than extraordinary; a certified genius, John Nash is perhaps as close as the contemporary world gets to a real-life wizard.

The film begins with his arrival at Princeton in 1947. An ungainly West Virginian thrust into a world of prep-school swells and cosmopolitan gentleman scholars, Nash is the very definition of social ineptitude. At once awkward and aggressive, he at first seems destined to bumble and insult his way into pariah status. His salvation in this sense is his extroverted British roommate Charles (Paul Bettany), who listens to his frustrations and coaxes him to loosen up.

It's when Nash is practicing some of his embryonic social skills in a campus bar one night, observing men competing over women, that he hits on the idea that will launch him toward fame in the field of game theory. Here and later, the ways the film depicts the manifestations of Nash's math wizardry are no less simplistic than those commonly employed in movies. But then, math isn't the point here; Nash's strangely evolving personality is.

As his academic career unfolds, he seems to be mastering his world. After winning a prestigious teaching post at MIT, he romances and marries a personable physics student, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), who proves uniquely tolerant of his eccentricities. During this time, Nash also is recruited by an elusive U.S. spymaster named Parcher (Ed Harris) to work on decoding messages to Russian agents placed in American newspapers and magazines. Soon, Nash's walls are filled with sheaves of manically scrutinized photos and clippings, and the McCarthy era's paranoia increasingly seems inscribed in his bizarre words and erratic actions.

Roughly halfway through, the story takes a sudden turn that involves the revelation of a crucial bit of trickery on the filmmakers' part. I won't spoil the surprise by saying what this is, only that the device strikes me as essentially legitimate--and dramatically effective--yet also rather gimmicky. It also touches on a problem that some viewers and critics are likely have with one aspect of A Beautiful Mind: its very free use of its real-life source materials.

The film began with a Vanity Fair article about Nash by Sylvia Nasar, which became the basis of her biography A Beautiful Mind. Though not having read either the article or the book, I understand that Akiva Goldsman's screenplay departs unhesitatingly from the facts they relate, and indeed manufactures much of its story. The film's press kit carefully states that the movie was "inspired by events in the life of John Forbes Nash Jr., and in part based on" Nasar's biography. It also relates the technical but interesting point that the Writers Guild of America granted Goldsman a "written by" rather than a "screenplay by" credit for his script, which, at least in the press kit's interpretation, "signals extraordinary innovation and a distinctive departure from the source material."

Stripped of P.R.-speak, that means the movie is more fiction than fact, despite being based on a real person's life. Does this matter? For anyone attached to the actual events of Nash's life, or to Nasar's account of them, perhaps it does. But a movie is a movie, and in principle I am inclined to grant filmmakers as much latitude as they need to derive essential truths from mundane facts.

In this case, though, it can't be claimed the truths derived from Nash's life by Goldsman, Howard and company are particularly profound. Quite the contrary, in fact. Looking at the general run of "important" Hollywood movies over the years, it might be observed that the way to success is not to tell audiences anything new, but to tell them something old and familiar, even clichéd, in a way that's fresh and engaging. Here, the big cliché is the tiresome old saw about there being a fine line between genius and madness.

Much of the movie's second half deals with Nash and Alicia's attempts to deal with his raging paranoid schizophrenia, which involves recurrent hospitalizations under the care of Dr. Rosen (the excellent Christopher Plummer). As with math, what the film has to say about madness can hardly be called penetrating or revealing. Yet it offers a serviceable basis for what does distinguish A Beautiful Mind: its superb cinematic mounting and performances.

A journeyman who has slowly inched his way toward mastery, Ron Howard's now at the top of his game. His new film works in large measure due to the finesse and imaginative expressiveness of his direction, which brings the periods of the story's unfolding--especially the 1940s and '50s--to life with extraordinary evocativeness. He gets important help from a number of collaborators, most crucially cinematographer Roger Deakins. With this film's luminous color imagery added to his black and white achievement in the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, Deakins is hands down this year's most accomplished lensman.

The movie's other great asset, Russell Crowe, brings incredible depth and specificity to his portrait of the wounded, wounding Nash. With most actors playing "geniuses," we more or less accept the conceit without asking much in the way of proof, but Crowe has an instinctive way of making soulfulness look exceptional and preternaturally edgy. Arguably the best performance he has given, his work as Nash easily outdistances his adroit movie-star turn in Gladiator. Like much about A Beautiful Mind, it seems made for the Oscars.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie, a sugary soufflé of a French comedy, was an enormous hit on home ground, providing a much-needed shot in the arm for the beleaguered French film industry. The odds-on favorite to win next year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, it's now doing the kind of business in the United States that could make it the highest grossing French film ever released here. It is, in other words, a film many people love. What follows is the minority view.

To me, Amelie is the latest twist in the evolution of what might be called the fake foreign film. This unfortunate quasi-genre began to blossom in the 1980s, about the time Americans' interest in real foreign cinema started to nosedive and many foreign cinemas were overwhelmed by the assault of Hollywood. As represented by the likes of Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino (both distributed stateside by Miramax), the fake foreign film manufactures a nostalgic simulacrum of yesterday's foreign-film glories via gauzy imitations of those triumphs as well as prettified, travel-poster views of the country represented.

Last year, in Chocolat, Miramax hit on the novel idea of eliminating the foreign producers and key creative players and making the fake foreign film itself. In Amelie (which, of course, is being distributed by Miramax), it seems that Jeunet and his collaborators, genuine Frenchmen all, have boldly taken things back into foreign hands while following the American company's aesthetic example. In other words, they have turned out what looks like a Miramax-style fake foreign film, but made by the French, for the French and those who love their cinema.

Their story is a trifle about a wide-eyed gamine (Audrey Tatou) who silently intervenes in other people's lives until fate turns her way and she finds herself falling in love with a wacky artist type (Mathieu Kassovitz). What's grabby about the film is its style, a nonstop silly symphony of sight gags and camera spasms, the kind that rely heavily on wide-angle lenses and rocket-speed tracking shots. While this frenzy does recall previous Jeunet works like Delicatessen, it is even more reminiscent of the language of TV commercials and music videos. Additionally, digital technology has allowed Jeunet to create an idealized Paris where there's no graffiti and every wall poster is cute and colorful.

That kind of fakery can, I think, be defended as a strategic technique. The problem is when it becomes a film's entire aesthetic core. I recently talked with an American filmmaker whose reaction to Amelie was similar to mine, if a bit more sympathetic. "I mostly enjoyed it because it reminded me of the antic charms of Zazie dans le Metro and other French New Wave films," he said. "But when I came out of it I realized that those films always showed you something about life." That indeed is what Amelie doesn't do. EndBlock

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