There turns out to be holes in Madden's 'Proof'

by Chetan Mehta | 10/31/05 6:00am

Aimed squarely at the intelligentsia and film-festival crowd, "Proof" is a literate film in every sense of the word -- talky and serious, with occasional bursts of cynical humor. Like "Pi" and "A Beautiful Mind" before it, "Proof," based on a Pulitzer-Prize-winning Broadway play by David Auburn, explores the thin line between genius and madness, extending it beyond the principal to question the legacy and responsibilities of children born to geniuses. It also delves into thriller territory for a while, tackling issues of intellectual property and authorship.

The story centers on Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is dealing with depression and questions of self-worth after the death of her father Robert (Anthony Hopkins), a universally praised mathematical genius who had not been entirely lucid ever since he reached his late-20s. Catherine had in fact put her own ambitions on hold -- she is also a mathematician -- in order to care for his father during the last few years of his life. We see Robert in flashbacks as someone who acts more like a graduate advisor than a father, urging his daughter to "work with him" on his mathematical proofs. Although there are moments of clarity, he remains deeply troubled in the head, filling up 103 notebooks with gibberish as he attempts to recreate the brilliance of his earlier years.

Catherine's solitary existence is disturbed after her father's death with the arrival of Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), Robert's former graduate student. He invades her home and insists on perusing through every notebook in hopes of finding something of value, in spite of her vehement insistence that "there's nothing up there." Hal is clearly interested in Catherine, but she only half-returns his affections because she never really believes that he is not out just to further his own career.

Another new entrant to her personal space is her sister Claire (Hope Davis) -- absent from her life for the past few years -- who jets in from New York determined to take the reins of the family. She insists on taking Catherine to New York, despite the latter's objections, because she thinks Catherine may be afflicted with the same madness as their father. The film takes a turn towards suspense (although not exactly the car-chase or "Who shot J.R.?" kind) when a notebook containing a breakthrough mathematical proof emerges from her father's remaining things. Catherine claims authorship, but Hal and Claire are skeptical.

John Madden, who directed Paltrow in her Academy-Award-winning role in

"Shakespeare in Love," is at the helm but has little to do; the film is on autopilot for most of its duration and affords little creative leeway. "Proof" often feels stage-bound, as most of the action takes place in a little house filled with books and dirty dishes in some Chicago suburb. I haven't seen the play the film is based on, but judging from Madden's choices, he's done little to mold it for film-going audiences.

I may appreciate "Proof" slightly more due to my background in mathematics, but the film is accessible to just about anyone. In fact, other than an odd reference to a famous proof, a couple of mathematics journals lying about and complex symbols scribbled on out-of-focus blackboards, this film -- supposedly about mathematicians -- contains very little math (There is a strange mathematical rationality to the dialogues early in the film -- see Catherine's conversation with her deceased father -- which quickly dissipates as the film moves into regular-drama territory.).

One of the most interesting ideas in the film is that of a "creativity peak." These intelligent, educated characters -- some whom can even be considered brilliant -- subscribe to an odd notion that a person's best work is produced early in his or her life. There is nothing scientific about the assertion, yet these men and women of science embrace this odd superstition wholeheartedly. In a field where the ability to master rationality is at a premium, this devotion to such an idea feels disconcerting. It gives the profession a supernatural quality: hard work and perseverance are constantly derided, replaced by an adulation of "natural genius."

Indeed, Gyllenhaal's graduate student is a self-deprecating character whose ostensible shortcomings as a mathematician -- "You haven't come up with an earth-shattering theorem that profoundly affects every field in mathematics? Get out of here!" -- are constantly highlighted by Catherine. Even though he's a personable individual who lives a complete life -- soccer coach, rock star, math geek -- we are supposed to think that he comes up short compared to the grouchy, impenetrable Catherine, whom we're supposed to love because she can add numbers.

Admittedly this is somewhat of a simplification, but this idea helps get the tone right as the hierarchy of social class among academics really comes into focus. "Proof" is one of the few films to portray a university campus realistically, as primarily a place of scholarship (despite what National Lampoon may want you to think). In academia, personality counts for little; arcane but beautiful proofs count for much more. The "stars" aren't the nicest, funniest people; they are the unlikable cranks who can make their peers feel small. If you are unapproachable and unusually devoted to your work, then that is just as well: your clout only increases. It's the exact opposite of real life.

Taking account of that, it doesn't seem all that outlandish that Catherine would believe herself to be crazy. The genetic shamanism of the academic world limits her to two fates: genius or basket-case. She's teetering between the two and needs support to pull her the right way. It doesn't help that her sister already has a therapist picked out for her. Oddly enough, she thinks herself free from any mad delusions that her sister has inherited from their father.

There is no limitation in the ambitions of the film; the topics explored are fascinating. The problem lies with the central character: she is a detestable grouch. She's rude and selfish, going so far as to make a mockery out of her father's funeral, and her attitude towards her sister is one of plain disgust, despite the best efforts of the latter to care for her. The filmmakers use every tactic in the book to arouse sympathy for Catherine's troubled maybe-genius-maybe-crazy persona, but it doesn't work. We're not supposed to like her because she conscientiously cared for her sick father for five years or because she's a depressed individual worthy of pity. We must care because she may be a genius.

The film thus demonstrates the leeway societies afford mad geniuses. From a purely economic standpoint, the benefits they generate greatly dwarf the negative externalities resulting from their eccentricities.

Paltrow excels in the main role, turning in perhaps her best work yet, but she cannot exceed the limitations of the written word. She will likely receive an Oscar nomination for her performance, but a win is unlikely. The Academy rarely votes for characters they'd rather forget.

Jake Gyllenhaal may very well take a statue home this year, though not likely for this film. He has two more upcoming prestige pictures -- Sam Mendes' Gulf War drama "Jarhead" and Ang Lee's gay Western romance "Brokeback Mountain" -- that are sure to garner many award nominations, but this work in "Proof" is unremarkable.

In short, see "Proof" if you don't mind the company of an unlikable character for 100 minutes; there are certainly some rewards here for the patient. Otherwise, steer clear.