Proof (2005)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/23/05 00:00:06
The central character of “Proof,” the long-delayed film adaptation of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is a dour and emotionally troubled young woman who seems to have to inherited both the genius of her father, a brilliant mathematician, as well as his madness. So who would you select in your mind to portray such a person? I don’t know who you might have pictured (unless you saw it on Broadway and cannot imagine anyone other than Mary-Louise Parker in the role) but I suspect that your first choice was probably not Gwyneth Paltrow. Nevertheless, she has been given the part–apparently part of the long-standing policy at Miramax to give her every female role that could possibly have an Oscar nomination attached to it–and while she isn’t especially bad, there is never a single moment in which she comes across as anything other than a miscast actress.Paltrow plays Catherine, a brilliant mathematician at the University of Chicago who abandoned her studies a few years earlier in order to take care of her father, Robert (Anthony Hopkins), a legend in the field who has spent the last few years slipping into dementia. As the story opens, Dad has just died and Catherine is forced to make her first few tentative steps from out of his considerable shadow. Arriving from New York for the funeral, her annoyingly perfect sister Claire (Hope Davis) comes in and starts treating her once again like a fragile little girl–she makes plans to sell the house that Catherine and her father lived in and bring her sister back to New York where she can get the “help” that she needs. At the same time, hunky young mathematician Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes into her world while going through her father’s papers and seems to be sweeping her off her feet.
What passes for conflict in the film occurs when Hal, going through Robert’s 103 notebooks, comes across a mathematical proof that, if it checks out, could somehow revolutionize the field. The question arises as to who wrote it. At first, Catherine denies any knowledge of the existence of the proof and then claims that Robert, despite his failing faculties, somehow pulled it together enough to hammer it out. Before long, she admits that she actually wrote the thing after all and Hal doesn’t know who to believe. If Robert wrote it, it would go down as a late-career triumph for his hero that would reassert him as one of the great mathematicians of all time. If Catherine wrote it, it would make her equally famous and revered throughout the academic world. Because she is a bitch, Claire insists that Robert must have written it and even though Hal is already sleeping with Catherine, he immediately withers like a little whelp and goes along with Claire’s assessment.
Despite all the academic muck on display, “Proof,” the film version at least, is essentially just another riff on the old warhorse of the fragile young lass beset by a domineering parent, hateful siblings and an outside world that just doesn’t understand her. Properly cast and staged, I can see how it could be transformed into an audience-pleasing work–with all the talk about advanced mathematics, it allows the audience to feel smart without actually having to know anything about the subject–but “Proof” is anything but properly cast and staged. Instead of figuring out a way of telling this relatively intimate story in cinematic terms, director John Madden (who previously teamed with Paltrow on “Shakespeare in Love” and a London production of “Proof”) opens up the play by the laziest methods possible–he’ll take a long dialogue scene and have the actors perform it in the back of a cab or in a department store for no other reason than to remind us that he is making a movie instead of a play and he can do such things. The lack of the immediacy of the theatrical experience is evident in other aspects as well–most obviously in the opening scene between Catherine and Robert, which must have had a considerable impact on stage but which comes off as nothing here.
The four actors at the center of the film are all incredibly talented but even they seem stymied by the material. As I said, Paltrow is simply miscast and Gyllenhaal is even less believable as a fellow academic–whenever he talks about math, it is with the unsure grasp that you see in people reading something in a foreign language without quite knowing what it means. Yet both of them come off brilliantly compared to the others. Davis, generally a wonderful actress, gives the least interesting performance of her career as the flinty, unfeeling sister–she is supposed to be somewhat cruel and insensitive but Davis takes it so far over the edge that you begin to flinch every time she appears on screen. As for Hopkins, he contributes a brief and hammy bit of scenery-chewing that may be the most embarrassing work he has turned in since he had the stroke in “Legends of the Falls” and spent the second half of that film talking like Popeye.On paper, “Proof” must have seemed like a foolproof equation: Acclaimed Play + Respected Director + a High-Powered Cast= Powerful Drama/Oscar Gold. The problem with mathematics, though, is that no matter how long or intricate your proof might be, one tiny mistake can render the entire thing useless. (Perhaps this is why so many movie mathematicians suffer from crippling mental problems.) In “Proof,” the mistakes start right from the start and it seems that no one involved had the ability to wipe the board clean and start over again
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