A high-minded drama with a prestigious cast headed by Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins, Proof is already being touted as Oscar bait. The hype isnt necessarily unwarranted; the film is an elegant, intelligent work, even though it echoes pieces of other Oscar winners, from the troubled math genius of A Beautiful Mind to the reluctant prodigy of Good Will Hunting. The story centers on Catherine (Paltrow), the 27-year-old daughter of recently deceased mathematics giant Robert (Hopkins), who spent his later decades in a schizophrenic freefall. Catherine sacrificed her education, career and a portion of her sanity in caring for her father. Her overbearing yuppie sister Claire (Hope Davis), who had nothing to do with the care of their father, now wants to sweep Catherine off to New York, while would-be boyfriend Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) wants her to stay put in Chicago. The charmingly nerdy Hal is also busy scanning Roberts endless stacks of notebooks for any trace of his former greatness, and when a revolutionary new proof is found, theres a looming question as to who wrote it. This discovery turns a small-scale family drama into a full-scale mystery, as Catherine fears shes inherited daddys madness along with his talent.
Adapted from David Auburns Pulitzer-winning stage hit, the film reunites Paltrow with John Madden, who directed her in Shakespeare in Love and a London production of Proof. Paltrows comfort with the character is evident, and she inhabits Catherines brittle skin with ease. Its her picture all the way, and she conveys intellect, insecurity and wit, often in the same gesture. Though saddled with a shrill and unlikable character, the dependable Hope Davis shines, and she keeps Claire human, where others might have turned her into a one-note villain. As the faded patriarch, Hopkins is predictably solid, though broad, and he sometimes seems to be playing to the back of the theater instead of the camera lens.
The film retains a bit of the claustrophobia inherent in filmed plays, but in this case the extreme close-ups serve well in a piece thats largely about intimacy. Beneath the academic trappings and larger philosophical searching of the script is a simple family story with all the beauty, bitterness and confusion to be expected. While the central characters can crack confounding mathematic riddles, no one can ever really calculate the depths of the heart.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].