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PROOF

By DAVID ROONEY
Variety, 8/29/05


Constructed with the artful mathematical precision that dances through the unstable but gifted minds of its father-and-daughter protagonists, David Auburn's "Proof" -- perhaps inevitably -- was more beguiling and intimate on stage than on screen. But despite less-than-ideal casting of the male roles, and a tendency to soften the Pulitzer Prize-winning work's thorny humor with a more sober tone, director John Madden has woven together an elegant, intelligent drama of a breed increasingly rare in mainstream American movies. Whether or not a significant audience exists for it will depend greatly on awards season attention, likely to center on femme stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Hope Davis (shown above).

Those unfamiliar with Auburn's 2000 play will draw comparisons with "A Beautiful Mind," which shares a focus on the fine line separating madness from genius as illustrated in a mathematician -- in this case two. However, "Proof" is a far more subtle exploration of similar issues, without the biopic backbone or the sentimental payoff of the Ron Howard film and therefore without the easy audience hook.

But in the troubled character of Catherine -- played previously by Paltrow on the London stage in a Donmar production also directed by Madden -- it has a complex and hauntedly magnetic central figure. The 27-year-old daughter of groundbreaking mathematician Robert (Anthony Hopkins), who slid into dementia long before his death, Catherine feels the brooding shadow of her own tenuous sanity as she prepares for her father's funeral. Intrusions into her depressive cocoon come via Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), a former student of her father's, now teaching math at the University of Chicago, and her sister Claire (Davis), who breezes in from New York, proffering coffee, bagels and jojoba conditioner as pick-me-ups.

Hal insists on combing through Catherine's father's hundreds of notebooks in the hope of finding lucid work amid the disjointed graphomaniacal scribblings. He also persists in trying to get closer to the borderline paranoid woman.

Catherine lets down her guard when they sleep together after a post-funeral party. She hands Hal the key to a desk drawer where a notebook is hidden containing a proof of a mathematical theorem that could prove a revolutionary discovery.

Creating the illusion of a far weightier drama, Auburn's sleight of hand was particularly deft onstage in regard to the play's two chief revelations: the first, that Catherine's conversations with her father are in reality with his ghost; and the second concerning the author of the proof. Those plot points lack the element of surprise in the film that the theatrical bracketing of a scene change can heighten.

Mostly, the play makes only slender gains by being opened up. Daniel Sullivan's original production unfolded entirely on the ample porch of the family's house. Madden keeps much of the action there; excursions to the college campus or a department store add little beyond the visual depth of Alwin Kuchler's sleek and graceful widescreen lensing.

One of the more successful elaborations is Catherine's speech at the funeral. Despite its forays into the arcane world of mathematics, this is a family drama and it works best when rooted in the rundown home that Claire wants to sell out from under Catherine.

Questionable choices in the casting of Robert and Hal somewhat dull the balance of this four-character piece. Making Robert British to accommodate Hopkins was fine, but it's a bland characterization, too indistinguishable from his other muted, unsatisfying turn as an academic in "The Human Stain." Only in his final scene, in which anger deflates into the realization that his perceived productivity is in fact inane rambling, do we really feel something for Hopkins' Robert.

Gyllenhaal achieves a good balance of sensitivity with a possible opportunistic agenda, while also revealing the dulled awareness of a guy who knows he's not quite talented enough to dazzle in his chosen field. But hunky Gyllenhaal is probably no one's idea of a math nerd; his excitement at being part of a possible breakthrough mathematical discovery never quite sits right on the physically confident actor's handsome, puppyish features.

Likewise, actually seeing the band in which he and his math cohorts play and making them a relatively cool ensemble kind of kills the joke of party-animal theoreticians.

Paltrow is entirely persuasive in a vulnerable performance low on vanity or showy moments. She makes Catherine's sorrow, her resentment and her fear of being her father's daughter a vivid, destabilizing force. Her crushed realization that her trust in Hal has been misplaced, and then her slow reckoning that the same realization may also be unfounded, are played with insight and economy.

The film's shift to a more somber tone from the play may be partly the influence of Auburn's co-screenwriter Rebecca Miller, as perhaps is the underscoring of Catherine as a woman almost numbed into complacency by the unlikelihood of achieving recognition in the boys' club of math.

One notable improvement in the screenplay is the amplified sense that Catherine perceives her own mathematical work as a potential source of shame to her incapacitated father, bringing clarity to some of her more self-sacrificial behavior.

Claire is a role that easily could be unsympathetic and one-dimensional, but the always wonderful Davis softens her intrusiveness with genuine concern for her sister, and with a touching understatement in conveying her awareness that the exceptional talents in the family gene pool went elsewhere.

Madden's melancholy handle on the material is echoed in Stephen Warbeck's lovely, if somewhat overused score. Better in its gentle introspective moments than its sentimental ones, the composer's work often takes on the urgent, obsessive mood of Philip Glass music, which represents an apt sonic accompaniment to the ticking of the tormented mathematical minds at the drama's center.

 

A Miramax Films release presented in association with Endgame Entertainment of a Hart Sharp Entertainment production. Produced by Jeffrey Sharp, John N. Hart Jr., Robert Kessel, Alison Owen. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Julie Goldstein, James D. Stern. Co-producer, Mark Cooper. Co-executive producer, Michael Hogan.

Directed by John Madden. Screenplay, David Auburn, Rebecca Miller, based on Auburn's play.

Catherine - Gwyneth Paltrow
Robert - Anthony Hopkins
Hal - Jake Gyllenhaal
Claire - Hope Davis
Prof. Jay Barrow - Gary Houston
Prof. Bhandari - Roshan Seth