“Proof,” the 2005 movie adaptation of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, is a useful example of why plays don’t always make the best movies. Film, motion pictures, is primarily a visual medium; it’s what separates movies from books (and to a lesser degree, plays). “Proof” is, for all its fine acting and dramatic intensity, basically too talky and too static to work for filmgoers expecting something more than a doctoral thesis. The movie may hold one’s attention, but it seldom stirs the emotions or the intellect.
How can that be, that it doesn’t fully stir the emotions or the intellect? It is, after all, a story about both genius and mental instability, perhaps two geniuses (or maybe two mentally unstable people). The directorial expertise of John Madden (no, not the football John Madden, the director John Madden of “Shakespeare in Love,” “Mrs. Brown,” and “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”) and the stellar performances of Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony Hopkins, and Hope Davis may be enough to leave you with the feeling that your time was justified, but for this viewer the story reveals a lot less substance than there appears to be.
Paltrow plays Catherine Llewelyn, a woman whose father has died a week before the story opens. He was a genius mathematician, a professor at the University of Chicago, who descended into madness the last half of his life and who Catherine took care of during the last five years. Now that he’s gone, she wonders how much of her father’s genius and how much of his insanity were passed on hereditarily to her.
About two-thirds of the film take place in the present and a third in the past, so there are continual time shifts in the storytelling. However, director Madden makes them smooth and easy to negotiate, so there is seldom any confusion. Just keep in mind that the father is dead, so whenever he appears, we’re in a flashback. Consider, too, that these flashbacks are in Catherine’s memory, so the father behaves the way Catherine remembers him best, at his most lucid and not in his more feebleminded or schizophrenic states.
Paltrow is brilliant as a woman on the verge of a breakdown herself. For a good part of the movie, she questions her own sanity, her own recollections, her own view of life. She is a shy, insecure woman with few or no friends, who has devoted the last part of her existence to the welfare of her father, giving up her own private life and her own education in the process. Now that he’s gone, she has a hard time coping with a new way of living.
Anthony Hopkins plays the father, Professor Robert Llewelyn, in flashback. Catherine remembers him once saying, “Crazy people don’t sit around wondering if they’re nuts…. They’ve got better things to do.” Was he really as unstable as the world believed? Hopkins has only a few scenes, but he makes the most of them, always on the verge of seeming wholly sane, yet always a figment in Catherine’s mind as well. He was a rational man working his whole life on rational ideas while becoming more and more irrational.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Hal Dobbs, one of the father’s former graduate students, who has come to the house asking to look through the professor’s personal papers. He hopes to find something the father may have written in his last years that might prove of value in cementing the man’s place in mathematical history. But Catherine, being paranoid of everyone by now, believes Jake only wants to find and steal one of her father’s unpublished theories for his own. Nevertheless, the two people find much in common; she’s a lonely mathematician’s daughter who worshipped her father, and he’s a lonely math geek who also worshipped the father. It isn’t long before they hit it off romantically. Interestingly, in the movie there is supposed to be only a year’s gap in their ages, when in actuality there is almost a decade difference between the two actors. Still, movies are make-believe, so just pretend. Paltrow looks much younger than she really is.
Then there’s Hope Davis as Claire, Catherine’s pushy, obsessive, compulsive older sister, who comes to take care of her after the father dies. She’s the opposite of Catherine; instead of being overly emotional, she’s overly controlled. She wants nothing more than to sell the house from under Catherine, take her sister back to New York to live, and put her under a doctor’s care. Catherine isn’t sure how to handle any of it, and if Catherine really is going crazy, it’s in no small measure thanks to her interfering sister.
What complicates matters is what develops in the last half hour of the story. Jake finds a “proof” in the father’s locked desk drawer. In math, this is “a sequence of steps, statements, or demonstrations that leads to a valid conclusion.” It is, as Jake discovers, a new and important mathematical theory that Catherine says he was working on during the period he was supposed to be unstable. But then she claims the proof is actually her own, something she worked out by herself and told no one.
Is Catherine really losing her mind? The proof is real, but who wrote it, Catherine or her father? Not even Catherine seems to know. How much of Catherine’s memory can she or we trust? Where is the proof of who wrote the proof?
Oddly, this central conflict comes so late in the proceedings that it is almost lost amid the character connections. It only serves to remind us that the movie, no matter how articulate and intellectual it may seem, is really rather confused about just what it is trying to say. Is the movie reflecting on the nature of genius? Is it about mental stability? Is it about trust? About self-reliance? About self-expression? About self-confidence? About the fallibility of memory? About finding oneself? Or is it simply about sibling rivalry and rocky interrelationships?
There is also an unfortunate subtext in the film that suggests that in order for people to be successful in life, they must do their best work while young, preferably in their twenties. Otherwise, their lives are forfeit, they’re losers, done, finished. All of the main characters in the story worry that life has passed them by, whether they’re in their twenties, thirties, or sixties. It’s hard to say if the filmmakers intended this message, or whether it’s simply a by-product of the characters’ dilemmas and their continual drive, but in either case it seems a dubious outlook on life.
And for all the highfalutin talk about mathematics, there is almost no actual math cited in the film. We see a few equations on glimpses of paper; that’s it. In the end, what we do see in “Proof” is a movie that creeps along trying desperately to find a focus or a theme. It may keep your attention, but it may have you pondering afterward just what it was about.
Buena Vista did not go whole hog with this movie, preferring to transfer it to disc at an ordinary bit rate. The film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio remains largely intact, measuring only slightly less wide across my screen, and it is anamorphically enhanced for 16×9 televisions, which helps a lot, too. But while colors are bright, they aren’t always entirely natural; definition is only so-so; a very slight veneer of grain covers the screen; and one notices the occasional shimmering line. It’s still a respectable image quality, but it is not the best I have seen from BV.
The audio is about as ordinary as the video. While it is reproduced in Dolby Digital 5.1, there is little, really, to indicate the need for 5.1 channels. This movie remains a talky stage play, and therefore the sound could have been in monaural, and we wouldn’t have noticed. The surrounds do come into play very subtly in terms of musical ambience reinforcement, but that is about all. The front-channel stereo spread is fine, mostly used for background music, but the sound is all very smooth and very clear so I am not complaining.
The disc contains three primary bonuses. The first is an articulate audio commentary by director John Madden, who explains a good deal about why he shot the film the way he did and what he was trying to say in the story. The second is a set of three widescreen deleted scenes with optional director commentary. And the third is a nine-minute making-of featurette, “From Stage to Screen: The Making of Proof,” that doesn’t tell a lot that we don’t already know. In addition, there are fifteen scene selections, with a booklet insert; trailers on start-up for four other BV movies on DVD: “An Unfinished Life,” “Shadows in the Sun,” “Everything You Want,” and “Daltry Calhoun”; English and French spoken languages; and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
“Proof” never gets around to proving itself. It rather leaves us hanging, wondering what it all meant. As a character study, it has its fascinating moments, it’s intriguing flashbacks, and its topflight acting. But that is all one is apt to notice: How well it’s staged and acted, the qualities we might admire in a good play. As a motion picture, it almost never comes to life or makes us care much one way or the other about its main characters. Perhaps, too, if the story had made up its mind what it wanted to say, it would have been a help, but in this regard I would be reviewing the play, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. Who am I to criticize that? Besides, I was never good in math.
As the Wife-O-Meter put it, “Proof” is not a film made for pure cinematic entertainment; it’s made for people who are looking for character relationships and character interactions in their movies. You know, like a play.