With so much cinematic junk flooding theaters, it’s a relief to encounter a movie like Proof, which actually dares to deal with ideas and complex — and complexly motivated — characters. The situation may also cause the movie to be overrated.
That was certainly the case with the previous collaboration between director John Madden and star Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love — a perfectly enjoyable historical romp originally overrated as something more than it was. That said, Proof is obviously more seriously intended, by no means a guarantee of quality, but at least suggesting that there’s an attempt at some degree of substance. It’s also notable that Madden and Paltrow opted to go with filming something that has far less chance of being a crowd-pleaser this round.
Such decisions — noble as they might be — are all too often doomed to grotesque and horrible failure if those involved are overreaching the boundaries of their talents. And while there are some weaknesses in this film version of David Auburn’s award-winning play (which Paltrow appeared in under Madden’s direction), these are more inherent in the material than in Paltrow’s performance or Madden’s direction.
Yes, the drama itself is a little on the pedantic side, and it tries too hard to be intellectual in a timid, middlebrow manner. There’s a faint whiff of striving for intellectualism without wishing to upset anyone — a sort of oxymoronic Intellectualism for Dummies meant to make the audience feel smart without actually requiring much effort from them. But there’s far more to admire here than not.
Paltrow plays Catherine, a slightly frumpy (to the degree that Paltrow can be frumpy), repressed mathematics whiz with dubious personal hygiene, who retired from the world to take care of her math-genius father, Robert (Anthony Hopkins), when his always-precarious mental health started degenerating. We meet her and her father on the eve of her birthday where he discusses — in mathematical terms — the probability, or lack thereof, that she’s inherited his mental imbalance. His take is that “crazy people don’t wonder whether they’re crazy; they’ve got better things to do with their time.” Her response is that he wonders about his sanity, and yet he’s quite a few sandwiches shy of the picnic. But he points out that he has the advantage of being dead (which is indeed true, since the conversation is occurring in Catherine’s head).
It’s not only her birthday, but also the eve of his funeral, and though Catherine doesn’t know it, her life is about to be turned upside down. Her irritatingly practical sister, Claire (Hope Davis), has plans to sell the house and take Catherine back to New York, largely because Claire thinks (not without reason) that Catherine got a healthy dose of Robert’s insanity along with his brilliance. A former student of Robert’s, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), is going through the professor’s papers, hoping to find something worthwhile amid a sea of incoherent gibberish; but more, it turns out that Hal is in love with Catherine, a revelation that helps prompt her to give him the key to a locked drawer containing a certain notebook. In it is exactly what Hal had been hoping for — a brilliant mathematical proof that he can only slightly grasp. What he does not expect, though, is that this isn’t Robert’s work, but Catherine’s — or at least she claims that it is.
The crux of the drama lies in whether this is true, and while the film finally demonstrates that it may well be, we’re forced to remember that we only see its creation through Catherine’s eyes — and if she’s unbalanced …
Laced with sharp dialogue, the film explores its various possibilities with a good deal of insight into its characters and the world of academia. Paltrow is close to perfection in the lead – looking even better next to Hopkins doing the kind of role that he can do in his sleep by this point in his career. Madden’s direction and the opened-up screenplay by Auburn and filmmaker Rebecca Miller keep the film moving and involving through the use of flashbacks and time-shifts. They can’t entirely rid the work of its theatrical origins — too many entrances and exits of the stage kind, while Catherine’s revelation as to the authorship of the formula has “theatre” written all over it. But there’s nothing wrong with a film being theatrical as long as it doesn’t feel stage-bound. Proof doesn’t.
A funny, thought-provoking work, Proof offers evidence — if not proof — that there’s still intelligent life in the movies. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, language and drug references.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke