Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Review - Proof

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Hollywood, it’s the fact that maths and mental stability rarely go hand-in-hand. If you are a maths genius who somehow manages to avoid schizophrenia or autism, then there’s bound to be some other ailment on the horizon to ensure your life is not to be a happy one. In Proof, we have mathematical brilliance and mental woe which may or may not span two generations. Robert (Anthony Hopkins) certainly went a little loopy after a stunning career in which he redefined the laws of mathematics twice over. His daughter Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) has inherited her father’s numerical skill, but has she also inherited some less welcome aspects of his personality?

Whether or not Catherine is mad is the question which drives Proof, a mawkish and unconvincing translation of David Auburn’s acclaimed play. With Paltrow reprising the role she played to great success on the London stage, and reuniting with John Madden, the man who directed her Oscar-winning performance in Shakespeare in Love; we might be entitled to expect more from Proof than this simplistic and mechanical tale. It’s not the fault of the leading lady, who is excellent throughout, but Proof fails to stir the viewer’s emotions or intellect and simply appears as a maddeningly vague slice of Hollywood cheese which never adds up to anything significant.

The opening scene, which is possibly the film’s best, sets the tone for the running “is she or isn’t she?” questions the script asks of Catherine’s mental state. We first meet her lying on the sofa late at night, half-watching television in a daze. She is startled by the sudden appearance of her father who asks why she is spending her 27th birthday alone. The discussion eventually moves on to her fears about the possibility of inheriting her father’s malaise but he reassures her with the notion that she can’t be mad, because she is sane enough to ask whether she is mad. Catherine responds by pointing out that he is mad, and yet he can discuss his sanity quite openly. “Ah, yes” he replies with a wry smile, “but I’m also dead”.

It turns out that Robert died at the age of 63 after five years in which his once brilliant mind slowly crumbled. Is this conversation evidence of Catherine’s own mental fragility, or simply a side-effect of her grief? It’s a neat twist to throw in to the film’s opening moments but nothing else in the script manages to match this smart touch. The screenplay, by Auburn himself and Rebecca Miller, is a rigid and unimaginative adaptation which never lets us forget that we’re watching something which began life on the stage.

There are two other main characters in Proof, who we are introduced to in clumsy fashion. Hal (the suddenly ubiquitous Jake Gyllenhaal), appears from upstairs where he has been working in his now deceased tutor’s study. That’s not all he’s been up to however, and Catherine explodes with rage when she discovers him trying to smuggle out one of the hundreds of notebooks her father filled out during his illness. Hal believes that there must be a trace of genius hidden somewhere under all the gibberish, and he begs to be allowed to continue searching, but Catherine doesn’t want to know. Gyllenhaal is never really believable in the role of a self-confessed geek who is also athletic (he goes jogging) and cool (he plays in a rock band); and their half-hearted romance adds little spark to the proceedings.

The final character we meet is Catherine’s sister Claire (Hope Davis). We already know that Catherine can’t stand her and in Claire’s first appearance we are bluntly shown why. Claire is flying in from New York (where she has forged a successful career and found herself a Fiancé) for the funeral; she wears business suits and is first seen with a mobile phone stuck to her ear. In Proof’s simpleminded view, the sheer nerve of Claire to make a life for herself, and to try and help her sister achieve some sort of normality in her own life, is enough to portray her as a bit of an uptight bitch. The talented Hope Davis is stuck in a thankless role with this one-dimensional character.

With such underpowered supporting turns (Hopkins, all noise and bluster, doesn’t give us much either), it’s left to Paltrow to carry the film and she does it with some skill. Madden pays her close attention, moving the camera in to record the emotions flashing across her face and Paltrow’s honest, subtle work reaches a depth of emotion lacking in the script. It’s arguably Paltrow’s best work to date, with her stint as Catherine on stage making her completely comfortable in the character’s skin, and it’s a ‘tortured genius’ performance which is mercifully free from clichés and mannerisms.

She certainly deserves to have her performance recorded in a better film than this. The big question in the film’s second half is whether the breakthrough proof Hal finds in a notebook was the work of Robert or was actually devised by Catherine, as she claims. The truth of the matter is carefully spoon-fed to the audience in a series of flashbacks, all of which are completely lacking in tact or grace. The frequent recourse to scenes from the past also leaves the film with a problem in terms of generating any sort of momentum and the attempts to open out the play - by having Claire and Catherine take a shopping trip or by having Gyllenhaal run around like a maniac in the final half hour - feel tacked on and false.

Proof is the kind of thing which one can imagine having a big impact in the intimacy of the theatre, but the move to the cinema screen appears to have dulled its edges and flattened its dramatic peaks. The film has plenty of big emotional moments, such as the scene in which Catherine reads the work her father has been doing and her angry funeral speech, but none of them hit us as hard as they should. The biggest frustration of Proof is the fact that we never get a clear impression of what exactly the big deal was about the mathematic equation which is central to the plot. As far as I recall, we are told that if x is a prime number then 2x+1 will also be a prime. But what does this mean? Why is it such a breakthrough? We are simply expected to take it on trust that this proof is an amazing discovery and we should all be suitably impressed.

Without the mathematics being treated in a serious manner, Proof becomes little more than another tear-stained family melodrama. By the time we’ve found out who really wrote the proof, and how, and why; the only question left on my mind was “is that it?”. Is that what we’ve watched two hours of shouting and squabbling for? Despite Paltrow’s best efforts, Proof left me feeling completely empty. It’s a shallow, dull, unedifying slog which doesn’t shed any light on the murky world of mathematics - and fails to prove anything else along the way.