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Math whiz
Proof wields more talent than credence

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Proof's official Web site

Proof should raise the sex-appeal quotient of math geeks everywhere, what with Gwyneth Paltrow’s numerical savant murmuring of Germain primes to Jake Gyllenhaal’s PhD before bedding him in the shadow of what looks like John Nash’s library. But John Madden’s film, which is based on David Auburn’s Pulitzer-winning play, is not really about math. Auburn, who adapted his work with screenwriter Rebecca Miller, has said from the get-go that he chose the heady world of higher mathematics — where creativity peaks early and genius often keeps company with instability — because he wanted to explore the ramifications of inherited talent whose flip side is madness. Still, the glibness of the math in Proof seems more glaring in the film than it did on stage, where the double-edged metaphor of the title (which refers both to a long mathematical proof and to what we require when faith is not enough) fit the medium more gracefully.

That said, Shakespeare in Love director Madden has assembled some powerhouse talent, and particularly in the second half of the film, he cuts between present and past with a frenzy that ratchets up the suspense of this romantic whodunit. Paltrow’s Catherine is a depressed yet volatile young woman who has just lost her father (as had the actress). A prodigy who had made "major contributions" to three fields of math in his early 20s, dad Robert lost his mind (he called it "the machinery") and started trying to decode messages from aliens through the Dewey decimal system. Rather than have him institutionalized, Catherine dropped out of college to care for him; meanwhile, controlling sister Claire (a compulsively organized but not unsympathetic Hope Davis) made gobs of money as a New York currency analyst.

Anthony Hopkins plays Robert as a disheveled, manic Santa of a man. And he almost hurdles the obstacle of playing his first scene as a ghost — one who has shopped for and refrigerated cheap champagne, no less (another detail that seemed less preposterous on stage). Madden shortens this scene, but he should have gotten rid of the talking ectoplasm — or made it more clearly a fantasy of the grieving Catherine. Most of Hopkins’s subsequent appearances are in flashbacks, when Robert was alive and for a brief while lucid.

Now that he’s dead, acolyte Harold Dobbs (Gyllenhaal) has come to pick through the 103 notebooks his idol filled with gibberish. Things spark between eager-beaver Hal and the troubled Catherine, who trusts him enough to proffer a small key that opens a drawer where one more notebook awaits, containing, as it turns out, something major — a proof that she sees as lumpy and inelegant but that proves to be "something mathematicians have been trying to prove since . . . since there were mathematicians." The question is: who wrote it? Zigzagging around Chicago and splicing between past and present, Stephen Warbeck’s music pulsing mathematically, Madden withholds surety until the tentatively happy end.

The original Catherine, Mary Louise Parker, built so many tics into the role that the character was more interesting than the one Auburn wrote. Paltrow, who played the role on London’s West End, is less quirky but turns in a beautifully limned performance, as fueled by snarling anger as by inertia and grief. Don’t know about those low-riding sweats, though — there’s no place in the sexy tank top for a pocket protractor.

Issue Date: September 23 - 29, 2005
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