‘Proof’ proves praiseworthy

Maybe it is fitting that a movie about a mathematical genius that goes insane is equally as brilliant as it is frustrating. Such is the case with “Proof” (Miramax), John Madden’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Auburn. The film stars Gwyneth Paltrow (collaborating with Madden for the first time since her Oscar-winning role in “Shakespeare in Love”) as Catherine, the daughter of the genius Robert Llewellyn (Anthony Hopkins).

The relationship between father and daughter is seen entirely through flashbacks, since the film’s opening scene reveals that Robert, three years after a brief return to lucidity, has just died. Robert’s student Hal Dobbs (Jake Gyllenhaal, “The Day After Tomorrow”) and Catherine’s estranged sister Claire (Hope Davis, “American Splendor”) enter Catherine’s life in an attempt to pick up the pieces following Robert’s death. Both of these characters regard Catherine with a combination of pity, empathy and fascination, each wondering just how much of Robert’s genius (and his insanity) has been passed on to his daughter.

“Proof” is handsomely produced and terrifically acted. Engrossing and intelligent, it has pathos and emotional resonance. Parts of the film, such as the funeral scene where Catherine angrily addresses those who neglected her father when he was ill, draw viewers into the film.

Because of this, the film’s few missteps are glaringly drawn into deeper focus when juxtaposed with its strengths. The best example of this is the perfunctory sex scene between Catherine and Hal, which takes place on the night of the funeral. It struck me as something that a callous Hollywood producer, looking to capitalize on the sex appeal of the two leads, tacked on at the last minute.

The dramatic tension of the film is generated through a series of “Eureka!” moments, where characters make earth-shattering discoveries that call into question the meaning of everything in the movie that has come before it. There is nothing terribly wrong with a few of these instances, but Madden seems to take great pleasure in filming characters’ Archimedean discoveries. By the climax of the film, I was too aware of the fact that I was being manipulated, which denied me the full emotional impact that the film could have created.

This is not to say that “Proof” is in any way a bad film. It contains outstanding performances from each of the four principals, especially Davis – a character who always knows what to say to make someone else feel terrible. The filmmakers, despite some frustrating errors in judgment, have taken a theatrical chamber drama, avoided the staginess that often accompanies stage plays when they are adapted for the screen and created a gripping, exciting film.

“Proof” opens nationwide Friday, Sept. 23.

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