Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 05, 2005
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis, and Anthony Hopkins. Directed by John Madden. Written by David Auburn and Rebecca Miller, based on Auburn’s play.
Rated PG-13.
I’ve Got Your Number

Let x = 1. Proof improves as the number of times you’ve seen it approaches x.


The winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for the best stage play of 2001, David Auburn’s Proof is one of those shows that’s absolutely spellbinding while you’re watching it in the theater but then falls apart the next day when you ask yourself what it was really about. The best and worst you can say about the movie adaptation is that the same holds true.

Having starred in the show’s London premiere three years ago, Gwyneth Paltrow reprises the role of Catherine, the daughter of a recently deceased University of Chicago math professor (Anthony Hopkins) who was considered the world’s greatest mathematician before mental illness destroyed his capacity to work and forced Catherine to stay home and take care of him. She turns 27 on the day she buries him, and all her suppressed anger and awkward longings well up in the presence of two people — her Type A older sister Claire (Hope Davis), who’s returned to Chicago for the funeral, and her dad’s worshipful former graduate student Harold (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s sifting through her father’s notebooks to see if any of his compulsive scribblings might be of mathematical interest.

Working with a play that takes place entirely on a back porch, John Madden (who directed Paltrow in the London stage production as well as in Shakespeare in Love) does a semi-successful job of translating it to cinema — the different locations are used effectively, but the camerawork is choppy and includes way too many close-ups. Auburn and co-writer Rebecca Miller successfully fiddle with the play’s structure to maximize the impact of its wispy central mystery, which is about a revolutionary mathematical proof discovered in the father’s desk: Catherine claims to have written it, but Claire and Harold have trouble believing that anyone except the old man could have produced it.

What the writers don’t do is add any sort of dimension to this story. When the proof’s authorship is revealed, that’s it. There’s nothing further to think about, no clue as to the work’s mathematical significance. Like the play, the movie’s basically a big shell game. The lack of addition is disappointing when you consider the perspective that Miller could have brought to this — the daughter of the late Arthur Miller, she has become a fine writer and filmmaker in her own right and should know a thing or two about being overshadowed by a famous father.

Insubstantial as it is, Proof provides four excellent showpiece roles for actors, which is no doubt why it continues to thrive on stage. Paltrow is deglamorized to good effect here, decked out in grungy collegiate fashions and slouching more than usual. Her performance is good rather than great; she has a nice wordless “Eureka!” moment while reaching for a mayonnaise jar, but generally she doesn’t have the laser-like focus that a wizard of abstract reasoning would have — she’s more believable playing a writer (as in Sylvia) than a mathematician. She loses concentration in the middle of some of the lengthier scenes, and she turns whiny during some of Catherine’s unglued moments, which is annoying even though it’s not necessarily out of character. She fares better when Catherine launches a premeditated attack instead of blindly lashing out, like when she gets up at her father’s funeral to abuse a church full of mourners. (“Wow, I never knew Dad had so many friends. Where have you all been the last five years?”) Especially good are her exchanges with a typically blustery Hopkins; there’s a real ease in the banter between them.

The real greatness in this cast comes from the two supporting players. Gyllenhaal is at his best on the occasions when Harold’s tolerance for Catherine’s crap runs out, and his forcefulness here is most welcome after his wimpy leading turns in Moonlight Mile and The Day After Tomorrow. It’s still a shock to glimpse the steeliness beneath this actor’s soft good looks and easy charm. As for Davis, this beautiful and exceptionally skilled actress has never had a rewarding part in a movie that found a wide audience. With her peculiar combination of warmth and astringency, she can make even the bitchiest roles sympathetic, and she’s cast exactly right in this film as the sibling who snagged a successful career and a fiancé by keeping herself at a safe remove from Dad. Davis brings out the character’s protective streak when Catherine starts exhibiting some of her dad’s symptoms and shows us that Claire loves her sister, albeit in a misguided way.

With its intellectual milieu and thoughtful performances delivered by a hard-working A-list cast, Proof certainly carries itself like an award-worthy prestige picture. It’s never dull, and if you’ve overdosed lately on escapist Hollywood fare, this film might well look like a much-needed dose of grown-up drama. It’s only when you examine it closely, the way a conscientious mathematician would, that its flaws become apparent.

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