Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 20, 2005 2:58 pm 
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A play that's still a play

Proof is a film version of David Auburn's recent Broadway hit, a Pulitzer Prize winner. In movie terms this is another crazy math genius story, and Anthony Hopkins, as Robert, a long-doddering University of Chicago prime numbers theorist, is considerably less interesting than Russell Crowe in Beautiful Mind. Things that worked well on the stage can seem too pat on the screen and that's what happens here. Robert is also quite recently dead, and when he tells his daughter Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) that, we realize she may not be so stable herself -- in addition to which, caring for Robert these last few years may have made things worse. In pop two other characters. First there's Hal (Jake Gyllanhaal), apparently one of Robert's most faithful post-doc's, who's upstairs sifting through dozens of notebooks Robert filled in his dotage, to see if there were some lucid moments; the once-great man did go into "remission" for nine months shortly before his demise. Next there's Hope Davis, good in the thankless role of boring bourgeois sister Claire, who is visiting and wants to tidy up, sell the house back to the University of Chicago and shift Catherine to New York where she can keep an eye on her and perhaps put her into an institution as she'd like to have done with dad.

What follows includes some pretty slow flashbacks involving Catherine and Robert which are supposed to explain everything but logically can't, since they're from the unstable if brilliant mind of Catherine. They have been more interesting on the stage than here; one hopes so, anyway.

Jake and Gwyneth have a brief romance -- they have sex after the post-funeral party (Catherine speaks up at the funeral and shocks everybody) and she gives him a key to a locked drawer. In it is one notebook with something interesting in it. It's a proof of the theory of the Germain prime. Catherine declares it's her work. That's not what Hal was inclined to think, but now he has to figure out who did it, and whether it's good or not. All that's crystal clear is that he didn't do it.

From here on, if not before, there's a little casting difficulty, which is that Jake Gyllenhaal looks nuttier than Gwyneth -- his spiky locks are not as tidy as her golden tresses, and his grad school duds are not as soignée -- and he certainly looks wilder and wilder as he gets "two sets of nerds" to check the proof and goes for days without sleep. Gwyneth looked quite radiant and fully in command during the sex episode, and now just looks pretty tired. We're supposed to like her better than her conventional sister and if Claire's wrong about everything, Catherine can't really be crazy. But that weakens the central pivot point of the play -- er, the movie -- because we're supposed to be uncertain of Catherine's sanity.

And the mystery is supposed to be: who wrote this possibly monumental and historic new proof: Robert or Catherine?

But unfortunately, half an hour after the movie's over, you won't care.

The movie gives Jake Gyllenhaal his first chance to make love onscreen to a major movie actress (he's going to get a crack at Heath Ledger shortly in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, and that should be interesting). There are a few moments when Gwyneth gets to be both sardonic and intelligent and one briefly glimpses the possibility that this could have been a movie for smart people rather than just about [theoretically] smart people.

There are a few moments also that surely the play must have lacked. You can't have somebody throw a notebook into a speeding away car in a play. At least I don't think so.

I don't think people are going to remember Proof very long. It ends rather equivocally and packs little emotional punch. The only moving moment is the one where Catherine reads aloud from a notebook Robert thinks contains brilliant new work, and it's gibberish about weather and months and students and bookstores. It may or may not sound like the mind of a ruined math genius, but it's sad, anyway.

Miramax did this, and it's mildly entertaining, respectable, but uninspired. What kills it (apart from its being a play, and a fairly dry one) is Anthony Hopkins, who's believable as an example of dementia but not of genius (he once said in an interview that he was not very smart, and I believed him); and the plodding flashbacks. It might work one day to put Jake and Gwyneth together in some wild romance; there was some chemistry there.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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