It could be argued that from Hollywood’s perspective, those who excel in mathematics fall into
one of two categories: geeks (if the movie is a comedy) or troubled (if the film is dramatic). The latter
has proven to be Oscar bait in recent years what with GOOD WILL HUNTING and A BEAUTIFUL MIND
as the most prominent examples.
The phenomenon spread to Broadway in 2000 when David Auburn’s play PROOF opened, featuring
a stellar leading turn by actress Mary-Louise Parker. The play won truckloads of awards (including the Tony®
and the Pulitzer Prize) and solidified Parker’s place as one of the theater’s leading ladies. Indeed, the role
proved to be a success for Jennifer Jason Leigh and Anne Heche, each of whom put her own stamp on
the part. When the play was produced in London, Gwyneth Paltrow was ensconced in the lead under the
direction of her SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE helmer John Madden. In fact, that production was seen as
a sort of warm-up for the inevitable feature film.
Auburn adapted his play for the screen which was then polished by filmmaker Rebecca Miller (herself
no stranger to Pulitzer Prizes as the daughter of legendary playwright Arthur Miller). The resulting film,
however, engendered a bit of controversy since it was ready for release in 2004, but was shelved by
Miramax. At the time, rumors flew: the film was terrible and not worthy of release; the film was too good
and there was so much competition that it would be lost in the other year-end releases; etc.
Well, a year later, PROOF (not to be confused with the far superior 1991 Australian film of the
same name) is hitting theaters, and the results are a mixed bag. On the one hand, Ms. Paltrow offers a
superb performance, but the film itself remains confined to its stage origins. Yes, attempts to open up the
film have been made (the play took place on one set, whereas the film has several locations), but the plot
conventions remain theatrical in nature. The result is a somewhat creaky melodrama, hampered by a few
Astute viewers will be aware right from the opening scenes that Catherine (Paltrow) is suffering from
depression. She’s first glimpsed channel-surfing with a sullen look. Even, the sudden appearance of her father
(Anthony Hopkins) and his wishes for a happy birthday don’t shake her out of her gloom. We quickly learn
why (a theatrical convention that viewers of a certain Bruce Willis film might recognize), and the plot begins
to take shape. Before he was thirty, Catherine’s father had discovered an important mathematical principal,
but his subsequent years were spent in decline (not unlike John Nash of A BEAUTIFUL MIND) and
Catherine sacrificed her own promising career to care for him.
Within a few scenes, we meet the other two main characters, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), a self-proclaimed
math geek and college instructor who has arrived to pour through hundreds of notebooks written by
Catherine’s father, and Catherine’s sister Claire (Hope Davis), who immediately becomes suspect because
she’s arrived from New York with an agenda.
It takes a while for the plot mechanics to fully kick into gear. The storyline eventually revolves around
the authorship of a mathematical proof, and once the players line up and that aspect of the story takes center
stage, the proceedings become somewhat intriguing and interesting. Unfortunately, there are flashbacks that
eventually clarify the authorship, so that mystery is settled in a rather mundane manner.
PROOF suffers from the perfunctory style of direction which Madden employs. Where he brought
vigor and a sense of joy to SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and HER MAJESTY, MRS. BROWN, here he
just seems to be going through the motions. That almost lackadaisical approach seems to have rubbed off on
Hopkins who seems to be merely phoning in his performance. His one big scene – where his character must
show anger – is so over-the-top it momentarily derails the film.
Similarly, Jake Gyllenhaal seems miscast as a math nerd. The character on screen is more of a plot
device than a full-blooded character, and I’m not sure whether the blame falls to the screenwriter, the director
or the actor.
The undersung Hope Davis does what she can with Claire, who is ostensibly the villain of the piece.
She tries to inject humanity in the character, allowing the audience to see underneath to her own hurt and
pain. Claire has not inherited the talents that her father and sister share – a gift for mathematics – so she
tries to overcompensate through her own career and life.
Holding the film together, though, is Gwyneth Paltrow, who delivers a wonderfully rounded portrait
of a fragile woman fearful of inheriting both her father’s genius and his madness. While some may see a
similarity between this performance and the one she gave in SYLVIA, there are different nuances. Her work
is exemplary and it’s just a shame that the surrounding film doesn’t quite rise up to her level.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content, language and drug references
Running time: 100 mins.
Viewed at the Broadway Screening Room
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.