Calling A Beautiful Mind Ron Howard’s best film does the picture a disservice, since, his commercial success apart, Howard’s never been the most exciting of filmmakers . And while A Beautiful Mind is most assuredly in tune with Howard’s mainstream Hollywood craftsmanship, it’s also a strikingly complex work that takes its share of risks … and succeeds more often than it doesn’t. The story of math genius John Forbes Nash Jr. poses a risk in itself. Most people hear the word “math” and their minds switch over to a burning desire to see a Steven Seagal movie. But the life of Nash is a little trickier than that, since the Nobel Prize-wining math whiz also suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, making him an unlikely hero and one that audiences might well have trouble identifying with. Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (Practical Magic) have managed to take a route that’s both adventurous and shrewdly appealing. The approach makes a good chunk of A Beautiful Mind play like a movie that it really isn’t, but it’s a great way to hook an audience. It’s also a potentially dangerous ploy from a box-office standpoint, but just how dangerous remains to be seen. Unfortunately, it’s also an approach about which it’s impossible to say very much without giving away aspects of the film that are best left discovered by the viewer. Let’s just say that A Beautiful Mind isn’t always what it seems, but it never actually cheats in order to achieve the effect it aims for and usually attains. Blessedly, this approach is more than clever. It genuinely helps to give a sense of Nash’s mental problems. While there have been innumerable movies with paranoid schizophrenic main characters, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a filmmaker take the approach taken here — one that goes beyond generating sympathy for its protagonist. For a change, we have a movie that does something to convey something of the sense of what the character himself is feeling. It does so with subtlety, intelligence and wit. Of course, A Beautiful Mind is also a solidly mainstream Ron Howard effort, so it follows that a great deal of the film will indeed be directed at creating a character for whom the audience can feel sympathy — and with every device available to a Hollywood filmmaker. Howard admirably underplays the sort of bathos masquerading as pathos that this could produce for the bulk of the film. He does go Hollywood on us by the film’s ending, but not in an easily manipulative manner (think Apollo 13). Sure, the film becomes quite consciously uplifting, but that’s not necessarily a negative, especially when it does so without overbearing, swelling music (James Horner’s score is generally restrained) and the ubiquitous swooping crane shot. No, A Beautiful Mind is not the wildly adventurous work of a maverick filmmaker, but it’s none the worse for that. Too, it remains stubbornly intelligent throughout its length. Just how intelligent — and just how fairly the film is structured — isn’t apparent while you’re watching it. It only becomes so upon consideration of what you’ve seen and you realize that all the information really is there from the onset, or at least all the clues are in place. Russell Crowe helps the film work as well as it does. I’ve never found Crowe an especially appealing actor, and by the end of the film, he does perhaps rely too much on mannerisms and make-up — but it’s a performance that’s a intelligent as the film that encases it. and one shot through with its own sly humor. (Note to Tom Cruise: This is how you get taken seriously and truly check your vanity at the door.) The rest of the cast is equally fine, though Paul Bettany (A Knight’s Tale) deserves special praise in a role that is, like the film itself, ultimately hard to describe without saying too much. A Beautiful Mind isn’t the great film of the year. It probably isn’t even as good as it thinks it is, but it’s at least close to greatness and a happy reminder of how good a Hollywood film can be when those involved are willing to take a few risks in the bargain.