Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis
Written by: Rebecca Miller and David Auburn, based on the play by David Auburn
Directed by: John Madden
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content, language and drug references
Running Time: 99
Date: 09/05/2005

Proof (2005)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

By the Numbers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's rare enough that movies portray smart, educated people at all, but when they do, why do they have to be tortured souls, forever on the verge of total anguish? The poor heroes of π (1998) and A Beautiful Mind (2001) battled screeching headaches and invisible demons while working out their complex number puzzles.

The protagonist of Proof, Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow), isn't much different. Fortunately, Catherine's particular type of inner anguish allows Paltrow to deliver perhaps her most layered and passionate performance to date.

Catherine is the daughter of a late, great mathematician, Robert (Anthony Hopkins). In flashbacks, Catherine drops out of school to take care of him after he begins to lose his marbles. In the process, she becomes something of an angry, depressed recluse herself.

In the present, one of her father's students, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), takes it upon himself to sort through Robert's notebooks -- hundreds of them -- to see if he left any final bits of genius. The movie pinpoints a single notebook containing a spectacular mathematical proof, something that could change the way scholars think. Of course, Proof isn't concerned with what the proof is, how it works or how to explain it to us; it's mathematics as MacGuffin.

When Catherine allows Hal to see the special notebook, the question arises as to who wrote it: Robert or Catherine?

Paltrow takes this scenario into her soul. We see her thinking, suffering, withdrawing and letting go. Unfortunately, director John Madden fails to generate much of a movie to support her. Neither Hopkins nor Gyllenhaal -- nor Hope Davis, who appears as Catherine's uptight, abrasive sister -- finds a center for their characters. Their scenes come out flat, like moments stolen from "Beverly Hills 90120."

Madden earned a 1998 Oscar nomination for directing Shakespeare in Love, but a closer look at that film reveals that its strength comes from its ingenious script. Madden, a former TV director, contributed little more than switching from one medium close-up to another. His subsequent effort, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, confirmed his one-hit wonder status.

A better director would have used Catherine and Robert's old house, filled with dirty dishes, scraps of notepaper and propped open books, as more of a character or a physical representation of a state of mind. Madden uses it as window dressing, mostly neglecting to capture its full effect.

And so Paltrow is left alone, much like Catherine, suffering and longing for someone -- anyone -- to come up to her level. No one ever does.

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