They’ve Got Us Reeling In the Aisles

I recently sat on a hush-hush committee of 13 that met in L.A. to nominate the year’s outstanding films and filmmakers for the American Film Institute, which just inaugurated its own awards ceremony. The setting was California-cool, the group adrenaline-high rowdy, full of passionate discussions and violent arguments. Having signed a confidentiality agreement, I am not at liberty to divulge the outrageous and gossip-worthy shenanigans that transpired during our deliberations. One detail, though: We had barely assembled when an illustrious member threw down the gauntlet, saying, “I want us to select bold, edgy, unconventional films,” as if this were a call to arms with which the rest of us would disagree. No one in our group of critics, scholars, producers and actors would have been caught dead espousing a “conventional” film, one that didn’t push the envelope or challenge our complacency. But what complacency?

Nowadays, even in Hollywood, the dark, the sinister, the kinky, the dysfunctional reign supreme. Witness the recent Golden Globes. Best supporting actress in a television drama went to Rachel Griffiths for her portrayal of a slightly mad genius-hippie in the wonderfully macabre Six Feet Under , a show about a family running a funeral parlor. Best actor in a TV drama series went to Kiefer Sutherland for his portrayal of a counter-intelligence agent in TV’s darkest show, the relentlessly paranoid 24 . And best comedy or musical film: Moulin Rouge , nobody’s idea of a feel-good movie.

Dysfunction and despair are so much the flavor of the hour that when a movie begins with a couple romping through the sun-dappled fields in a fever of desire, as in that other critics’ darling, In the Bedroom , you know with Pavlovian dread that terrible things are in store. The emblematic “hero” in today’s downer Zeitgeist is a void, the man who isn’t there at all. Of the 10 films our group nominated ( Lord of the Rings eventually won), only two told love stories in which people actually find hope and completion through love-and one was a cartoon ( Shrek ). That leaves A Beautiful Mind , a favorite of mine, but one that has suffered from the bias against emotional fulfillment particularly noticeable in the critics’ groups.

Although it won four awards from the Golden Globes, I’ve had a hard time defending A Beautiful Mind in New York circles, where trashing a movie is a safer proposition than exposing oneself to ridicule by embracing it-especially if it tells a boy-girl love story, brings a tear to the eye or has mainstream appeal. Champions of Truth in Cinema and sticklers for Velcro-faithful adaptations of source material are outraged by the way Akiva Goldman’s screenplay glosses over the less pleasant aspects of John Nash’s life, as laid bare in Sylvia Nasar’s biography. Gays are up in arms over the suppression of Mr. Nash’s homosexual activities. For all I know, schizophrenics, if they could get it together as a protest group, would object to the inordinately coherent narrative that Mr. Nash’s hallucinations assume.

But hey, the guy is weird enough. And it’s not as if he’s a national figure about whom complete disclosure of deviant behavior is owed the public. And Russell Crowe brings out Mr. Nash’s awkwardness, his arrogance, his super-geek lack of social skills as he teeters on the edge of the repellent. If the movie hews a bit too closely to the formulaic milestone biopics that are Hollywood’s stock in trade, it’s a mainstream film, after all, with all the limitations that imposes. Just compare it to The Majestic , which tries to deal with amnesia and politics and fails utterly.

Ron Howard’s reputation as a play-it-safe commercial golden boy has blinded critics to the deceptively innovative way the movie handles madness, generally a graphic and dramatic minefield in movies. Offering some of the same surprise value as The Sixth Sense , A Beautiful Mind shows the delusional mind not as some whacked-out state with wavy lines and goofy eye gestures emphasizing its separateness from ordinary reality, but in images that are clear, lucid and persistent, even playfully comic. This more benign treatment of schizophrenia may occasionally feel too neat, but it gets into the hallucinating mind in a way few movies have. When an interviewer asked how he could have believed that the C.I.A. was recruiting him, Mr. Nash replied that these imaginings came from the same place in his mind as the mathematical discoveries. By showing the porous line between sanity and insanity, by suggesting the link between genius and dementia in the fearfully intertwined circuitry of the brain, Mr. Howard and Mr. Goldman show a touch of genius themselves.

The movie’s other unpardonable sin-that it brings its love story to the fore and offers a modicum of hope and therefore is schmaltz and popcorn fodder-has also, they say, been committed by Iris , an even more rapturous paean to connubial devotion, which has been dismissed as soap opera. Never mind that the suffering in both films, including painful periods of mutual isolation, is hardly the stuff of romantic fantasy.

I wonder, where are these skeptics when it comes to the alpha males bonding on the screen? If Achilles had spent as much time moaning over Patroclus as a character in Lord of the Rings spends over an expiring comrade, it would have stopped The Iliad dead in its tracks. The rehabilitation of the warrior culture has given grown men license to cry over prolonged deathbed embraces in Lord of the Rings and Black Hawk Down . In the latter, soldiers (non-star grunts) run after each other begging, “Let me die instead of you.” And now Nicolas Cage, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson are the respective stars of three all-too-soon-to-be-released war movies, in which there will surely be, along with shoot-’em-up gut-spilling gore, some hard-wrung male tears.

Male weepies are as chock full of emoting as any male-female romance, but the latter is conveniently relegated to a genre ghetto, the Chick Flick, while war films (Dick Flicks, anyone?) are presumably ennobled by their grim view of life as annihilation and despair.

By contrast, A Beautiful Mind and Iris show people suffering from madness, Alzheimer’s and numbing frustration and surviving, even learning to live with their fears. We’re not talking “happily ever after,” the sort of rosily optimistic ending people mean when they say “Hollywood film.” (And how long since you’ve seen a good one of these?) We’re talking of people with terrible infirmities finding a modus vivendi. Russell Crowe’s John Nash subjects himself to ridicule and just keeps going. And no less miraculously, Jennifer Connelly as the distraught, luminous wife doesn’t give up on him.

Which film will win the Oscar? A boys’ adventure epic that doesn’t even end, or a love story that shows the triumph of everyday heroism? The consensus may depend, as it did in our group, on the ratio of male to female voters.

They’ve Got Us Reeling In the Aisles