Just a pretty face

Film - Philip Kerr is not impressed by a formulaic story about a mad mathematical genius

"There is no great genius without some touch of madness," wrote Seneca. He knew a thing or two about madness, having been the emperor Nero's speech-writer; even so, Seneca was just echoing what Aristotle had said, and before him Plato, too: "Good sense travels on the well-worn paths. Genius never. And that is why the crowd, not altogether without reason, is so ready to treat great men as lunatics." With such illustrious authorities as these for John Dryden's cliche that "great wits are sure to madness near allied", no one should have expected that Hollywood was ever going make a movie about a genius who gets his hair cut regularly and wears Armani. On the evidence of A Beautiful Mind, Hollywood seems happy to feed us the ancient commonplace that there is a price to be paid for stealing knowledge from the gods. Thinking too much, as Shakespeare has it, is dangerous.

John Forbes Nash Jr is an American who was a co-winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences. Nash's landmark work, first begun in the 1950s, was on the mathematics of game theory and had nothing to do with economics. Or so everyone thought. Nash assumed that any game had a set of possible outcomes and that associated with each outcome was a utility for each player; from these, Nash selected his solution, the Nash Equilibrium, a unique outcome in which each player gains the same amount of utility and ignores such considerations as past history or the needs of players. The Nash solution was taken up by business strategists, who were attracted by the way his theory attempted to explain the dynamics of threat and action among competitors and, as a corollary, the way it seemed to challenge traditional Keynesian economics.

Not that there is much of this in the film. Nash's theory might as well be a £10 Yankee at Chepstow for all the attention it merits here. The only formula that interests the director, Ron Howard, is the one where boy, played by Russell Crowe, meets girl; the only mention of an equilibrium, or lack of one, is when Nash loses his marbles following a period of intense concentration.

With the help of an art director who believes that the chaotic complexity of a truly great mind is best depicted by a wall collage worthy of the Turner Prize, Crowe is called upon to do not much more than stare solicitously at the heavens, from where inspiration duly arrives, to the accompaniment of some predictably celestial music. The Big Idea having arrived, the only problem for the director is how to depict its extrapolation - something that can be communicated to another man, one with white hair and half-moon glasses (played here by Judd Hirsch).

As Falstaff reminds us, "they say there's divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance or death"; and no film about a genius is worth the price of admission without an equation. Ron Howard's problem is that there is nothing in Nash's work to match the divinity of E=mc=. Castles in the air - they're so easy to build, but bloody hard to film. Howard's solution (will he win a prize, too?) is to have Nash write his equations with a white chinagraph pencil on the leaded windows of the Princeton library. It adds a suitably metaphorical touch to all that dull maths stuff: thought is ephemeral, right? That most students would be banned from the library for this kind of antisocial behaviour seems neither here nor there.

Naturally, Russell Crowe, more of a stranger to the library than the gym - and here strangely reminiscent of a chimp in a dinner jacket in one of those commercials for PG Tips - would not be everyone's idea of what a tortured genius ought to look like. For someone supposedly careless of his own person ("You do eat, don't you?" he is often asked), Crowe appears much too well fed, much too pleased with himself ever to be troubled by the thought of anything more sublime than which Hollywood leading lady he is next going to nail. But he is box office, and that's what counts - especially when the subject is as difficult as this one. Women are hot for Crowe, and judging by how well the film has done in America, they even like him when he's pretending to be a nutter, making prissy lozenge-sucking mouths and twitching more than an Edinburgh spinster's net curtains.

Having said that, Crowe will probably win an Oscar for the role - Hollywood loves movies about loonies. If he does win, however, I shall I have to console myself with the thought that at least Crowe isn't as irritating as Geoffrey Rush in Shine, a film I can watch only while hugging a toilet bowl. That said, things are generally made easier for Crowe, in that the small matter of Nash's homosexuality is entirely ignored. But with memories of all that S&M gear Crowe wore for Gladiator still fresh in my mind, I could more easily believe that his character was gay than I could ever believe that he was really clever.

A Beautiful Mind (12) is on nationwide release

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Lord Snooty and his party pals