Middlebrow Adaptation of a Math Play Doesn’t Add Up


A Miramax prestige pic based on David Auburn’s Pulitzer-winning Broadway hit,
Proof insists that life is not as tidy as mathematics—an axiom this upper-middlebrow contrivance illustrates with the help of a dramatic schema that is itself more mathematical than lifelike.

An esteemed Chicago number theorist (Anthony Hopkins) dies after a slow descent into dementia, leaving his daughter and caretaker Catherine (an effectively wan and muted Gwyneth Paltrow), herself a gifted mathematician, grief stricken and unsure of her own sanity. Even before the funeral, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), a pet student of her father’s, starts combing the notebooks the great man filled with disjointed ramblings in his final years, hoping to salvage some flashes of lucidity. Shrill, officious elder sis Claire (Hope Davis, almost redeeming an impossible yuppie caricature) swoops in from New York, determined to sell the family house and restructure Catherine’s life for her. Though wary of these two interlopers, Catherine eventually lets her guard down and shares with them a notebook in her father’s desk drawer that contains a mind-bending and enormously complex discovery in the field of prime numbers. (Both the play and the film completely elide the content of the solution.) Catherine claims it’s her work; Hal and Claire are skeptical, and Catherine in turn can’t prove she wrote the proof.

Like so many prodigy movies, Proof treads heavily on the line between genius and madness, unsubtly wondering how much of each the daughter has inherited from her father’s once beautiful mind. Auburn’s scenario (the script is credited to the playwright and to filmmaker Rebecca Miller) is nothing if not calculating, predicated on systematic twists and reversals. John Madden’s competent, monotonous film version, not exactly stagebound but hardly freewheeling, only underscores its mechanical nature. In its central mystery,
Proof exploits the gap between the unshakable logic of mathematical knowledge and the doubt and incompleteness inherent in human understanding. But the tension evaporates once the proof’s author is identified—in unwieldy flashbacks that we’re asked to accept as irrefutable evidence. At the very least, this should be a movie that holds itself to a higher burden of proof.