Proof (2005) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some sexual content, language and drug references
Running time: 99 min.
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony Hopkins, Hope Davis
Director: John Madden
Screenplay: David Auburn (from his play), Rebecca Miller
Review published December 30, 2005
Gwyneth Paltrow (Sky Captain, View from the Top) reprises the role she played on the London stage in David Auburn's award-winning Proof, and her performance is probably the best thing about the film as a whole. She isn't alone, as she also has a superb supporting cast around her, making an otherwise routine drama about gifted but trouble people play better than the same material might with lesser thespians.
Paltrow reunites with Shakespeare in Love director John Madden, and while Madden does hit all of the right notes at the right times to say his involvement was a success, the thing that keeps Proof from earning "Best of" status for 2005 is the story itself. It never really breaks away from being sufficiently different than other dramas of its type, a la Good Will Hunting or A Beautiful Mind, and for a tale about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, it never drives the point of it all home in a wholly satisfactory manner.
Paltrow plays Catherine, the troubled daughter of one of the most celebrated geniuses in the modern world of mathematics, a recently deceased Robert (Hopkins, Red Dragon), who has begun to question the state of her mental health after catering to her mentally ill father for the last several years. Robert was once at the cutting edge of mathematical thinking, but in the years before his death, he was losing his mind in very significant ways, and the only thing that made it somewhat bearable was the closeness of his youngest daughter, although caring for him required great sacrifices to her own academic career.
Meanwhile, Robert's protégé, Hal (Gyllenhaal, The Day After Tomorrow), has been busy scouring all of Robert's prolific writings he has done during the crazy years in the hopes of finding something worthwhile, but finds that nearly all of it is gibberish. Catherine initially resents Hal, but soon begins to trust him, and that trust leads to her giving him a blockbuster of a mathematical proof that she claims is hers, although the writing in the notebook looks very much like her father's. the contents are enough to rock the mathematical world, but could a college dropout with no accolades be the creator, or is she merely crazy herself for thinking she wrote something that only a genius like her father could write?
Although finely acted, with quality writing and excellent direction, there's just something troubling about the story behind Proof that hinders it from being truly gripping. Part of the reason comes from the inability for anyone in the film to come up with what should be an easy solution as to the author of the proof itself. While two people may have similar handwriting, asking us to believe that Catherine's is absolutely identical to her father's is a stretch in itself. However, even if you buy that premise, the fact that none of these very intelligent characters thinks to have a handwriting analyst to prove just who is the real author is a glaringly contrive plot hole that sits there just to push forward its themes of trust and belief. At the very least, Catherine could have easily just given a sample of her handwriting to show how her penmanship looks, but instead, she just claims to have written the proof and gets angry that people refuse to believe her, no matter how much she pleads.
Perhaps you'll think I'm missing the point here, but this angle did actually mar my overall enjoyment of this otherwise commendable film. For this reason, I can only offer up a modest recommendation for at least being engaging enough to hold one's interest. The characterizations are very good, and the dialogue intelligent enough to offer up moments of thoughtful reflection when the time calls for it. Yet, as fine as everyone is in the acting department, what the film really lacks, other than the aforementioned plausibility, is an emotional core that would allow it to overcome the lapses in logic and hit home.
If you're not one to nitpick movies to death, you'll probably find Proof to be a more rewarding than I have, especially if you happen to be a fan of Paltrow, Gyllenhaal, Hopkins or Davis. I'll admit, I did enjoy the film overall, but couldn't bring myself to ignore the notion that characters who've spent a lifetime in a field of study that requires handing over one's work to others for fault discovery, examinations, testing, and yes, proof, would have such a hard time allowing others to do things like determine authorship, or even checking with someone more learned in the field to see if they are indeed going crazy or not, instead of just saying, "It works", "It's mine because I said so", or "I'm know I'm not crazy" and expecting people to take that as fact.
Although from external appearance, Proof seems like an intelligent and erudite tale, at its core, it's the same old self-identification mushiness you'd find in any other film about 20-something women unsure about their future. By leading with the heart rather than the head, Proof isn't in the pudding; it is the pudding.
©2005 Vince Leo