People often speak of “opening up” a play when it is made into a movie. In one sense the Tony- and Pulitzer-prize winning Broadway production of “Proof” has been opened up. Instead of entirely taking place at one house near the University of Chicago, this story about a young woman who doubts her own sanity after caring for her brilliant but mentally ill father has scenes at a chic downtown clothing store, Northwestern University, O’Hare airport, and the University’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.
But the play is never “opened up” the way it should be. In all likelihood because it has been so acclaimed, it has been transferred to screen as though it was antique porcelain packed in bubblewrap, each line perfectly preserved and perfectly delivered. But it’s more like watching a documentary about an acting master class than like watching the story of these four people. Plays are about talk, but movies are about showing. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) has transferred his London production to the screen instead of reimagining the way the story should be told on film.
That is especially damaging to this particular story because it does not have the depth to overcome the stuffy quality of its presentation. The characters and the situation engage our attention because they are smart people confronting painful choices, but the whole thing is more smart than wise, and the stagey, Serious-Play-Treatment and artificial talkiness of it just makes that more obvious.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays Catherine, the devoted daughter of a brilliant mathematician (Anthony Hopkins) who produced important work in his early 20’s but became mentally ill in the last years before his death. While her sister Claire (Hope Davis) has had an independent life, working on Wall Street and becoming engaged, Catherine dropped out of school to care for her father.
The stress of that situation is devastating. Catherine must struggle with the reversal of the parent-child relationship, of seeing a brilliant mind deteriorate, of being removed from interaction with the rest of the world, and, perhaps most unsettling of all, the fear that she may have inherited her father’s mental illness as well as his genius — the fear that the two are as inextricably linked as Catherine and her father are themselves. Catherine misses her father terribly but she is also relieved that he is gone, and horrified to feel that way.
Claire is upbeat and believes in being cheerful and using hair conditioner with jojoba. “It’s a funeral, but we don’t have to be completely grim about it!” she chirps. She wants Catherine to come to New York with her. But Catherine has lost so much and wants to stay in the house. It feels safe and familiar. And she is drawn to Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), a student of her father’s who is going through the notebooks he scribbled in constantly during his illness, in case there was some flash of lucidity.
One notebook has what appears to be a “proof” of stunning import and insight. But the question of proving who did the proof and whether that should even be necessary is trickier and more ambiguous than the mathematics of prime numbers. And mathematics can only go so far in helping us understand human behavior.
Therefore, it seems especially unfortunate as though form and content are at odds when the movie turns disappointingly formulaic. Powerhouse acting talent and movie star charisma are always striking, involving, even illuminating, but they take us only so far. Paltrow’s impeccably elegant furrowed brow and Hopkins’ megawatt twinkle (with that white beard, he could give Santa a run for the money) and perfectly calibrated disintegration are all just a little too careful, a little too respectful of material that would have benefited from a less antiseptic approach.
Parents should know that while it is rated PG-13, this movie has material that may be disturbing for younger or sensitive audience members, including mental illness, drinking (and getting drunk), and tense emotional confrontations. Characters use some strong language and there is a non-explicit and tender sexual situation.
Families who see this movie should talk about whether it is possible to say which daughter was “right” — the one who pursued the opportunities available (and paid the bills) or the one who gave up her own aspirations to care for their sick father. Why was it so hard for Claire and Catherine to communicate? Why was it so hard for Katherine to believe in her own ability? Was it fair for her to expect Hal to believe her without “proof”? Outside of mathematics, how much proof can we expect to find?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy A Beautiful Mind and Pi. They will also enjoy the many other films featuring this brilliant cast, including Shadowlands with Hopkins, October Sky with Gyllenhaal, and Moonlight and Valentino and Great Expectations with Paltrow.