Whether playwright David Auburn had any direct experience with mental illness is not evident in the screenplay for Proof, the adaptation of his Pulitzer/Tony award-winning play, which he co-adapted with Rebecca Miller. And any beauty in the writing of that play that won him the coveted Pulitzer has been wrung out of the screen version to make way for something two women involved felt was more important: their relationship with their dead fathers.
Both Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays the lead role of Catherine, and Miller hail from larger-than-life, famous beloved fathers. In both cases, dealing with their passing has been translated into crawling out from under their shadows, dealing with the grief (the unending grief) of their absence and finding out who they are and what their own voices might be. For Paltrow, it meant giving arguably her best performance to date – raw, honest, unusually powerful. For Miller, not so much – the screen version of the play is muddled, pat, overly simplistic and lacks a writer’s voice – neither Auburn’s unique one nor Miller’s.
Proof isn’t a great film, and barely a good one. What it has going for it are two actors, Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins (playing a famous mathematician) who come from different ends of the profession but who, when brought together, grind like metal and metal, producing friction and spark. With a supporting cast almost as good, this film plays like an actors’, not a writer’s, showcase.
The story opens on a mopey, albeit gorgeous Catherine celebrating her birthday alone, drinking champagne out of the bottle and talking to her father (Hopkins). The conversation seems weird until we discover she’s talking to a ghost. Catherine is in that stage of grief in which everything makes you either burn with anger or sob hopelessly. She embarrasses herself by acting overly paranoid when one of her father’s students, Hal (the ubiquitous Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s been working upstairs in her father’s office, looking for buried, undiscovered math proofs, tries to leave the house with his backpack. She’s convinced he’s stolen her father’s notebooks.
Catherine’s apparent paranoia could be a clue that she too is going mad, like her dead father. Could she have inherited his mental illness? She is a lost woman in need of rescuing and Hal is just the guy to rescue her. And, you know, in movies, as in life, it’s impossible to resist a pretty, crazy woman. He doesn’t know whether she’s crazy or not. She doesn’t know if he’s being straight with her or not: Is he just using her to get to her father’s hidden work?
Meanwhile, into this craziness, the “together” sister Claire (Hope Davis) arrives to help arrange for the funeral. From the moment she sets foot on Chicago soil. Claire appears to have been written to drive Catherine insane, if she hasn’t gone insane already. With her perfect suit, her cherry red lipstick, her engagement ring, her talk of “the city,” Claire is an annoyance in the way that all people with jobs and kids are an annoyance in the world of J.D. Salinger, in which the more bitter and depressed you are the more horrible the world appears to be.
Eventually, after Catherine insults Claire and Claire makes Catherine thinks she’s crazy, a plan is hatched to sell the dilapidated shack their father owned and move Catherine to the city where she would matriculate into normal society. Of course, Catherine would rather die than do that. What drives her to eventually agree is the discovery of a proof.
Once the proof is uncovered, which may have been written by Catherine or her father, the story goes into a downward spiral it never really recovers from. Whatever it started out as, this wasn’t a story about math or proofs at all. It’s the least interesting part of it. It feels contrived, and it forces the characters to act in ways they wouldn’t.
Whether this was the case in the play or not, this writer cannot say, having not seen nor read it. What remains is not a piece about coping with mental illness in family; here it used as a gimmick and nothing more. And not a movie, really, about math; again, it functions merely as a way to move the plot forward. No, the only thing left, the skeletal remains of was once a brilliant play is a film that depicts grief, in all of its awful, agonizing splendor.To that end, the story served Paltrow well. Between the time she performed the play and filmed the movie, her own father had passed on. She was also newly pregnant. Both the morning sickness and the evident heartache are visible on every amazing, protruding bone on her face. Can she be believed as a math genius? Can anyone that pretty actually have learned to develop other skills in life? Hard to say for sure, but what is true is that she is so good you forget most of the time to even ask the question.