Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Movie review: Proof ****

Proof deserves better.

Not just because it has the gall to suggest intelligence is a virtue, and not least because it is willing, conversely, to explore the ways intelligence can be far from a virtue.

It also deserves better not just because its pedigree is grade-A prestige: Gwyneth Paltrow plays Catherine, the shaky daughter of a legendary mathematician, played by Anthony Hopkins; the supporting roles are filled by Hope Davis (as Catherine's sister) and Jake Gyllenhaal, as a former student of Catherine's father; the filmmaker is John Madden (who directed Paltrow to an Oscar in Shakespeare in Love) and the screenwriters, Rebecca Miller (a director in her own right, and daughter of Arthur Miller) and David Auburn, who won a Pulitzer and Tony for the stage play.

No, Proof deserves better because there are so few pictures like it anymore - at least, so few with that combination of Hollywood sparkle and literary heft the studios once sought out.

Even if it wasn't very good, and it is, Proof would deserve better because it could be an experiment, to see if those audiences who complain there are no smart movies for adults would be willing to support a picture that wears its brains on its sleeve -as opposed to a horror picture with brains literally on its sleeve.

Sort of like Good Will Hunting, which (along with A Beautiful Mind) shares a number of themes with Proof: Both are about mentors, both concern brilliant minds stymied by low ambition, both feature mathematicians who've gone insane, and both are a rare breed: the accessible math movie - an often surprisingly successful breed.

Perhaps it's because math - as much I hate it, too - offers one of the rare moments in life when you are certain. Debate is moot. Not all math is airtight, of course. But the idea that the right seemingly random elements inserted in the right equation will equal an outcome that was destined to be - that's a pleasant thought.

And a handy metaphor, which Auburn worked brilliantly in the stage production of Proof, and works less successfully here, mainly because more is happening.

His play, which originated in New York with Mary Louise Parker in the lead, was set almost entirely on the back porch of a Chicago home, not far from the University of Chicago, where Catherine's great math scholar father taught and was esteemed by colleagues.

By necessity of being a feature (the old Playhouse 90 style of live TV would have been ideal), Madden's Proof stretches its legs and wanders around the city, often without satisfying reasons, often lapsing into the stagey rhythms of the theater, which might have been unavoidable since Paltrow played the role on stage in London, also under Madden's hand.

But Auburn's ideas stay intact, and the fundamental shape of the stage production remains: It opens with Catherine having a long, casual conversation with her dad, and our growing realization that her father, whom we see, is actually dead.

He's not exactly a ghost, although she is haunted by him, and she does talk to him. He's more of a presence. It's not a psychological thriller, but you might say it's a thriller about psychology, of a person whose love for her family is so strong it obliterates her own identity. The thrills are cognitive, though there is a little suspense.

Catherine allows a graduate student, Hal (Gyllenhaal), to rustle through her father's notebooks. She says he spent his final years writing compulsive, book-length stream-of-consciousness rants. Hal is convinced that one last mathematical breakthrough happened in those years, when her dad's talents deteriorated into a mental illness. Hal finds a book with a radical theory he can't prove is correct - but can't prove is incorrect, either.

Then the bombshell: Catherine insists she wrote it, yet a glance at it reveals handwriting that matches her dad's. Authorship gets fuzzy.

Someone wrote it, of course, but how much of her father has Catherine inherited? What part madness, what part brilliance? Paltrow has rarely been better. But before you realize this, you realize you have almost never seen the actress, outside of an entertainment news show, playing an ordinary American woman - no accents, no pretense.

Catherine does have a slurred, defeated way of speaking - Mary Louise Parker had it on Broadway, too. It's somewhat distracting but it also underlines that the real mystery of Proof is not who wrote the equation. It's whether Catherine is exhausted from living with genius, or from having it herself. Or the fear that genius will become madness.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at:

or 419-724-6117.

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