Monday, November 07, 2005

Early review of PROOF – When formulae fail

You can just see the Weinstein boys and their monkeys at Miramax huddled round an excel file plugging in known variables: Oscar-nominated director (John Madden), check; Oscar-winning actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), check; Oscar-winning actor (Anthony Hopkins), check; cool Sundance-award-winning screenwriter (Rebecca Miller), check; plot point similarity to multi-Oscar winning movie, (“A beautiful mind”), check. With the tried and tested formula for a high-grossing award-winning movie in place, what can go wrong?!

Nearly everything. This is a movie based on a play by David Auburn, and reunites director John Madden and actress Gwyneth Paltrow from their recent success on the West End stage and in Shakespeare in Love”. Paltrow is Catherine, a Math whiz from Chicago who gives up her own grad-work to care for her mentally-ill father, Robert. Robert, played by Anthony Hopkins (best-known as Hannibal Lecter), was a genius who transformed numerous fields of Mathematics in his youth. When Robert dies, his former student, Hal, played by Jake Gyllenhaal (“Donnie Darko”) discovers a ground-breaking new proof among his papers. The second half of the movie hinges on whether Robert or Catherine wrote it.

First off, there is a lot of stuff that, if not “right”, is “not wrong” with PROOF. The acting, editing, photography, set design etc. are all workman-like and the script is funny in unexpected places and touching where it should be. Better still, there is not that obvious tugging of the heart strings that you get with all sentimental Ron Howard movies, notably “A beautiful mind” and “Cinderella Man”.

But I found it very had to care either way who wrote the proof, or to empathise with Catherine’s fear that she, too, is going mad. I think the problem is one of authenticity. In films like “A beautiful mind” and Hustle and Flow it is essential that we believe that the protagonist could have authored the product around which the plot turns, and that we believe that the product is of sufficiently high quality to warrant the hoop-la. So, in “A beautiful mind” we have a nice little explanation of, at a very simple level, Nash equilibria, and we see their importance to a variety of different fields. In a very different film, Hustle and Flow, we hear D-Jay write and perform rap songs and these songs are really really good. We believe that he could have a career as a recording artist. The problem here is that we do not really buy into the idea that either Hopkins or Paltrow are gifted mathematicians, or have a sense of Hopkins greatness. And without that, it all seems like so much shouting about not much in particular.

PROOF was released in September in the US and opens on 24th February 2006 in the UK.

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