A dialogue-heavy family drama about math enthusiasts and the shaky line between genius and insanity may not sound like the most enjoyable way to spend an evening. But lucky for “Proof,” with a four-person cast of Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal and Hope Davis, it’s hard not to get drawn into the intensity.
The drama, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, centers around Catherine (Paltrow), a 26-year-old who has spent the majority of her adult life taking care of her father, Robert (Hopkins), a mentally unstable mathematical genius. Although her father’s death occurs before the film begins, Catherine’s frequent flashbacks shed light on the professor’s slow descent into insanity, leading Catherine to question whether she will suffer the same fate. Emotions escalate when Robert’s favorite student, Hal (Gyllenhaal), and Catherine’s yuppie sister, Claire (Davis), show up at the house for the funeral. While looking through Robert’s 103 notebooks, Hal discovers a proof that is so profound, it could change the world of math. In other words, it’s the Holy Grail for math geeks. It’s a theory mathematicians have been trying to solve for centuries, but Catherine claims that her father never wrote it.
As Hal races around to find the answer, Catherine becomes more and more introverted. Paltrow pulls off the baggy clothes and unkempt hair look convincingly. More seriously, she perfectly portrays Catherine as someone who has sacrificed her life and her education for someone that is no longer there, and maybe never was. There is an intense sense of yearning throughout the film for Catherine to take her life back into her own hands, but before she can do that, she must come to terms with the overpowering fear that she will become her father. Although Catherine’s character provides a fascinating glimpse into the difficulties of grief, pain and anger, Paltrow’s whining, crying and yelling get a little tiresome. It’s understandable when directed at Claire, whose business-sweater sets and caffeine-addicted personality are unbearably annoying, but Catherine seems to feel that everyone, including Hal, is against her. Her performance is a testament to the fact that there is only so much fighting that an audience can take without getting angry at all the characters. However, the acting and character development are done so well that this problem only really becomes relevant toward the end of the movie, when the conflict gets a little long and drawn out.
The most compelling part of the film is the strength of the relationships and the dynamics of each character. Catherine and Hal have a strong connection that is enthralling to watch. Gyllenhaal absorbs his role as the sensitive but motivated math student who is drawn to Catherine’s vulnerability and loneliness. His character is easy to fall in love with and he evokes a strong sense of sympathy. Catherine’s simultaneous love-hate relationship with her father is also easy to relate to for all of us who have lived with our parents for a long period of time.
Every character has a complexity that is strikingly realistic. Although Claire is a control freak who doesn’t really understand Catherine, she appears to have some emotion underneath it all and it’s easy to sympathize with her envy of the genius she never inherited. Meanwhile, Robert’s character embodies the insanity that can result from the pressure to live up to one’s own genius.
“Proof” is a film that captures human emotion with an intensity that is riveting and enthralling to watch. But if emotional voice-overs, heated math discussions, and four deeply troubled characters (one of whom is dead from the start of the whole ordeal) is too much to handle, you might just end up going a little insane yourself.