p>I have a friend who has met Jennifer Jason Leigh on several occasions. Leigh’s father, Vic Morrow, died on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie in a terrible helicopter crash that decapitated him and also killed two children. My friend tells me that at any social gathering, everyone is unusually careful not to mention the subject of decapitation — a subject, of course, that almost never comes up in conversation — yet almost always someone slips. It’s the elephant in the room that no one can avoid talking about.
In Proof, the new film directed by John Madden (the director of Shakespeare in Love, not the “Monday Night Football” guy) from David Auburn and Rebecca Miller’s adaptation of Auburn’s play, the insanity of Anthony Hopkins’ character is like Morrow’s death: No one can stop talking about it, and his daughter is made constantly to confront it. In flashbacks and dream sequences, Hopkins plays Robert, a brilliant mathematician and University of Chicago professor who began his descent into an unspecified madness in his late 20s. By the time of his death, at 63, lucid moments were strangers who paid infrequent visits, sometimes for a few hours or days, once, remarkably, for almost a year. His daughter Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) was his caretaker in the final days of his decline, seeing that he ate, helping him bathe, preventing him from unintentionally harming herself. (There’s no mention of Catherine’s mother or what may have become of her; Catherine seems born like Athena from her father’s forehead. Indeed, the parallel between Robert and Zeus is furthered by the godlike awe with which many of his students and colleagues regarded him.)
Catherine is a great character for Paltrow, who seems constantly to be trying and failing to shed her ethereal image by taking on unglamorous roles. Here she seems younger and schlubbier than usual — more American — and her diction has a defiant, adolescent sloppiness that reminds me of Sara Gilbert in “Roseanne,” or the younger Claire Danes. Catherine is a loose cannon, full of repressed anger and sadness that can explode at the least opportune moment. She’s not the usual long-suffering movie heroine who makes her sacrifices smilingly; she’s pissed off that she gave up so much for her father, that she had to feed and clean him when he forgot or was unable to, that his colleagues and students worshiped and fawned over him when he was lucid but abandoned him when his mind degenerated. She’s lived her life in the shadow of a Great Man, but she knows what it it’s like to wipe the Great Man’s ass for him.
Robert’s sudden death leaves Catherine at loose ends; her devotion to him led her to shut down every other area of her life. She dropped out of college, didn’t have a job, and seemingly cut off all personal connections, living a hermitic life with him in a big house near the university campus. One connection she couldn’t rid herself of, though she might wish she could, is to her sister Claire (Hope Davis), a hyper-efficient New York currency analyst. Too freaked-out and embarrassed by her father’s madness to offer any help, Claire hasn’t been home in years, but Robert’s death brings her back to Chicago to handle the funeral arrangements and instruct Catherine in proper deportment.
Claire has little time for her father and sister’s eccentricities and doesn’t realize that in some ways she shares them. She masks her own compulsive behavior, such as her constant need to make lists and cross off completed tasks, in an ultra-conventional veneer, afraid to be associated with anything that might seem abnormal. Her life is about the external, about appearances, while Catherine and Robert’s lives take place almost entirely in their heads. Though Davis is a proficient actress, the character remains schematic, almost as superficial in her development as she is in her behavior. She’s an uncomprehending straw woman who is too repressed and too much in love with her comfy haute-bourgeois life to grasp her father or her sister’s difficulties. She sees in Catherine so many of Robert’s gifts and his flaws that she wonders if her sister, too, may be sinking into psychosis. Catherine has her own doubts; she may be a gifted mathematician herself, possibly a genius, but also an antisocial depressive, and she fears she may meet the same fate as her father.
The one person who has faith in Catherine — though a faith that may not hold up under strain — is Hal Dobbs (Jake Gyllenhaal) a former student of Robert’s and still his devoted acolyte, who is reading through over a hundred notebooks left behind in Robert’s study in search of any valuable mathematical work. Hal is a Good Boy, a sweet, awkward (though unusually handsome) nerd with a voice higher and more strangulated than Gyllenhaal’s usual tone. Catherine is initially wary of Hal, whose motives she questions, and dubious of his project — Robert was a graphomaniac, a compulsive writer who filled thousands of pages with gibberish that reads more like a game of exquisite corpse than the work of a genius mathematician. But Hal is sincere, gentle, and kind, and eventually he wins Catherine’s trust. She directs him to the one notebook of value — it contains a long, complex proof that has something to do with prime numbers — but then declares that it is her work, not her father’s. Hal is nonplussed. How could Catherine, who dropped out of college a few months after enrolling, be the author of anything so brilliant? To believe it, he would also have to accept that Robert, his idol, who had made paradigm-altering discoveries by the time he was 21, spent the last years of his life in a perpetual fog, his genius departed.
The film keeps the answers tantalizingly off-screen for a long time; they are revealed gradually, through ambiguous flashbacks to Robert’s last days. We see that he and Catherine were simultaneously working on complex projects; one was the extraordinary proof that Hal found, the other amounted to nothing — but which is which? Auburn plants seeds of doubt along the way: During the time in question Catherine was depressed and emotionally unstable while Robert was unusually clear-headed. Did he have an amazing 11th-hour return to greatness? Is she just a neurotic who imagined that the proof was hers or, worse, a liar who chose to claim it to build her own reputation?
The film’s title refers not just to a mathematical formula but also the need to demonstrate the truth of something, the absence of simple faith. Hal, who has come to care for Catherine more than she realizes or understands, betrays her trust when he doesn’t believe the proof is her work, but we’re not sure he’s wrong to do so. How much should he trust this volatile woman? How much can we? When you love someone, how much proof should you demand of them; how much faith should you have — is Catherine wrong to believe that something of her father’s essential self remained even when he was a doddering madman? How closely was his genius tied to his insanity — did they spring from the same root cause — and if Catherine inherited one, does that mean she necessarily inherited both? In regard to personal relationships, the film presents the need for proof as an enemy of trust, a barrier to connecting with another person.
Auburn, Miller, and Madden have done a great job of “opening out” the play; only the unusually literate dialogue betrays Proof’s origin on the stage. But despite its cleverness and its hip, achronological structure, in its tone the film is a bit of a throwback. Madden’s direction is more than proficient; in fact, it’s so fluent, so capable and assured that it comes off a bit slick — this is the serious-earnest-elegiac-drama school of filmmaking, the kind of thing that Sydney Pollack and Barry Levinson were doing in the ’80s and that has more recently made Madden a golden boy for Miramax — and, while usually effective with audiences, it can be a bit much. The movie fairly reeks of Oscar-bait. The score, by Stephen Warbeck, is often syrupy and overwhelming; Auburn’s well-written scenes don’t require such excessive underscoring to hit their mark. The dialogue and performances — uniformly good, and Paltrow, at least, is near-great — are plenty. This sort of directorial overkill can win over academy voters, but intelligent moviegoers may wish Madden had tried a more searching, less pat approach.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()