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Rated 3.04 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Conventional Math
by Jeffrey Chen

Perhaps it's a bit silly to approach Proof from a math/science geek's perspective, but I really can't help it. This is a movie about the daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) of a once brilliant math professor (Anthony Hopkins) who eventually became inflicted with madness and passed away. The daughter may have inherited both his genius and his madness, and whether or not either case can be proven forms the center of the story. But the environment in which the film takes place is a rosy college world that exists as a fantasy east coast institution, where good-looking math major boys balance their hip, youthful sides with their intense, studious sides.

I was a math major myself once, and because of that I tend to be picky about the minor authenticities of such collegiate depictions. Proof features much generic surface talk about "math" and "theories," conveniently hyping up conventional ideas without ever going into much detail. Statements sounding very much like, "This proof could change the face of mathematics!" get thrown about, and we the audience just have to take it for granted that they're true. No, I'm not asking for a movie to teach us math, but even the similarly environed A Beautiful Mind attempted a visual math lesson, which at least meant the filmmakers tried to be considerate of their subject matter.

Particularly disappointing to me, though, is that Proof's rather banal milieu is symptomatic of the movie's conventionalism as a whole. It's a cozy, middlebrow production putting an acting spotlight on Paltrow, surrounded by an unchallenged Hopkins and Jake Gyllenhaal as a liberating love-interest spirit who  could be the key to putting Paltrow's character, Catherine, on the path to focus and self-respect. Flashes of Good Will Hunting intrude subliminally on the viewer. The movie even goes so far as to create a despicable villain, Catherine's sister Claire (Hope Davis), a thoughtless daughter who had the nerve to find a career instead of staying to help dad through his senile years, and who now can't wait to put her other possibly crazy family member into a home for close surveillance.

Proof's roots as a stage play are evident in its limitations as a screen adaptation. On stage, live acting provides a primary focus; the college environment and the handling of math as a subject come second to its player interactions. Paltrow reprises her role from the stage to the screen here, but as a filmed performance it is what you expect it to be -- strong, committed, effectively emotional, maybe a little showy. Everything else that is cinematic must rise up to the support, but it doesn't happen here. From Hopkins being on auto-pilot to the soft photography of beautiful campuses, the movie creates a sense of being competent but not daring; it's warm but contains no sparks. Other potential strengths aren't utilized to their best effect; for example, it uses a mystery to create a light suspense, with answers slowly supplied through flashbacks, but the scene of revelation comes across as so preposterous I had to keep from chuckling.

I'd like to bring up the movie Primer as a contrasting example of a math film. This little indie sci-fi work centers around a couple of characters who talk like engineers you know (if you know engineers). Their lingo may be fictional but it's delivered with a fresh, realistic tone. The mood is dirty Electronic Varese, not soothing Baroque Vivaldi. And when the characters talk about the details of their work, they talk over our heads -- we're interested because we don't immediately understand, but we can hear just enough to think we can work out what they're talking about. We're rewarded for being smart enough to keep up, not encouraged to sit back and accept lines about the "Most Important Proof of This Century." Its story is pretty thick, but it gives us a reality we can recognize, one with details and specifics. It understands the world it sets us into.

Proof uses math as a point of irony -- that these thinkers who can use logic to prove anything are helpless when it comes to proving human intangibles (like whether or not one is actually crazy). But simply utilizing it in this way turns it into a matter of mere statement; math becomes little more than a convenient literary tool, contributing almost nothing else to the mood of the film. Were it not for that irony it establishes, it could've been interchanged with any academic subject. The movie is mainly about the journey of a character trying to accept the lot fate has dealt her. But since that story and its atmosphere are handled in a very safe way, the movie would've been well-advised to take better advantage of the surroundings it chose to give us reasons to sit up and take notice.

(Released by Miramax and rated "PG-13" for some sexual content, language and drug references.)

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