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By Stina Chyn | October 7, 2004

It can’t be a good sign when you watch an indie film and instead of thinking about its direct strengths and weaknesses, you’re imagining who would star in a bigger budget, Hollywood studio version. Ryan Eslinger’s film “Madness and Genius,” for instance, would probably star Joshua Jackson, Nick Stahl, and possibly Alan Alda in a story about two college kids and a physics professor. Jordan (David James Hayward) relies on his ability to recall information to get good grades, but he still needs someone else to do his homework. Nigel (David Williams) is this someone else. He also gets high marks but unlike Jordan, who regurgitates what he reads or hears, Nigel understands the mathematical equations and their applications. Shot in black and white, Eslinger’s film examines the friendship between Jordan and Nigel and addresses the madness and genius of Jordan’s teacher Professor Frank Donovan (Tom Noonan).

The film has a good setup. It begins with Professor Donovan sitting in a Chinese fast-food restaurant and explaining to a little boy the ramifications of an optical magniscope at the resolution of an electron microscope which would allow one to study a live specimen. Whether or not you find scientific discussions fascinating is unimportant as you become intrigued by the scruffily dressed professor. Unfortunately, Eslinger doesn’t reveal Donovan’s eccentric ingenuity as directly as one would like. Rather than focus the film on the professor or move the plot along from his perspective, Eslinger places storytelling responsibility on Jordan. His curiosity about Donovan’s past (which includes some mid-Twentieth Century weapons of mass destruction) and an ongoing project provides the viewer with some insights on Donovan’s genius. Examples of his madness, however, do not require Jordan as an intermediary. Donovan talks to little kids about physics; shows up to class and mumbles his way through lectures. A notch above absent-minded and several rungs beyond introversive, Professor Donovan is in his own world.

Eslinger has created a character with much potential for exploration and dissection, and even though the film’s title undoubtedly references Donovan, “Madness and Genius” ends up paying a lot more attention to Jordan and Nigel. In contrast to films where Nigel’s character is the sidekick and would therefore exist primarily to support the main character, “Madness and Genius” gives Nigel his own plotline. Not only is he intelligent, but he also has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a neuromuscular disease, and is in love with Rachel (Christine Meyers) the teacher’s assistant. Nigel is in some ways the uber-underdog. He’s not conventionally unattractive enough to be a geek, but he’s physically handicapped and creepy enough to be “different” (a.k.a. weird).

Although Eslinger competently weaves the three characters’ stories together so that one person’s choices and actions will directly affect the others’, the film leaves you dissatisfied because you know more about Jordan and Nigel than you care to and not enough about Professor Donovan. Halfway through the film, you’re thinking about what “Madness and Genius” would be like if Joshua Jackson were Jordan and Nick Stahl were Nigel, and how much sense this casting choice would make. When Eslinger’s film ends, you feel relief.

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