Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis
Director: John Madden
ALSO! Check out where it ranked in our 2005 Year in Review.
“Proof” would have been incredibly easy to screw up in transition from the stage to the screen. The characters are absurdly complex (hence the Tony and Pulitzer honors), where what they say and do reveals only a tenth of who they are. To further complicate things, the play has one, count it, one set throughout. And yet, as “Proof” unfolds, it doesn’t feel at all stagey; instead, the story seems to be liberated by the jump to film. A world of opportunities is suddenly available to the filmmakers, and they use them to great effect.
Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Catherine, the youngest daughter of mathematician Robert (Anthony Hopkins), a once brilliant mind who has since lost his marbles. In fact, Robert is actually dead, but that doesn’t stop Catherine from still talking to him; for better and for worse, she has inherited more than her share of her father’s traits, from the mental instability to a rare gift for numbers. Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), a former student turned professor and admirer of Robert’s, is going through the notebooks that Robert stuffed with assorted proofs and drawings in his last days, hoping to find a sign of the genius he was.
Claire (Hope Davis), Catherine’s older sister, returns to Chicago for the funeral and decides to take Catherine back with her to New York, so she can “take care of her,” even though Catherine doesn’t really need to be taken care of. Hal complicates everything, in a few different ways, by getting romantically involved with Catherine, then stumbling upon a notebook with a proof that even he isn’t quite sure he understands fully, but knows is a sign that Robert hadn’t completely lost his head. He wants to publish it and show it to the world, while paranoia consumes Catherine, who now thinks that Hal was just using her.
Paltrow would be wise to keep director John Madden on speed dial going forward. He coached her to an Oscar in “Shakespeare in Love,” and he gets yet another revelatory performance out of her here. She’s not as boozy as the Catherine that Mary-Louise Parker played on Broadway, but she is very believable when she’s being her best and when she’s at her worst. The mood swings she experiences – the meltdown she has on Claire while trying on dresses in a store, for example – have an authenticity that most “performances” of mentally unstable characters lack. Paltrow, however, nails it, then sticks the landing for good measure.
All of which would all be for naught without a stellar supporting performance from Hope Davis, who steps up big time as Claire, the more level headed sister but also the passively condescending one. She loves Catherine, but doesn’t understand her, and in fact is a little jealous of her abilities. It is this last emotion that clouds all of her judgments with regard to Catherine, and Davis is remarkable at conveying concern, resentment, and a healthy dose of guilt. Hopkins works better when he’s in low gear; the times where he’s clearly lost both his mind and his temper, which exist mainly to show how combustible Catherine herself can be, ring hollow, as if anger is not an emotion that Robert’s linear mind would bother to entertain.
Gyllenhaal’s Hal is more of a foil than anything else, between Catherine and Claire, and between Catherine and her father (at least as far as Catherine is concerned). Gyllenhaal plays it well, though, with both the wide eyed optimism of someone who loves his work and a guy who knows how the rest of the world perceives it. To go with the good to great work that Madden coaxes from his leads, he expertly moves the story out of its one set, jumping back and forth in time in the process, to give the ending the emotional impact it demands.
The beauty of “Proof” is that it contains all of the elements of a dysfunctional family drama with few of the trappings. As messed up as these people are, they’re not hopeless, and in fact are often quite amusing. It’s deep, to be sure, but also light, something that takes a deft touch to pull off successfully. More than anything, it’s good to see Paltrow getting her swerve on again.
The widescreen release of "Proof" doesn't offer much, but it's a good film nonetheless. The only extras you'll find here are three deleted scenes, a short making-of featurette and a director audio commentary with John Madden.