With "Proof," the new Gwyneth Paltrow movie based on the award-winning play by David Auburn, we are once again back in "A Beautiful Mind" territory. You know - the madness of genius, the genius of madness.
For a decade, Paltrow's Catherine had been caring for her famous mathematician father Robert (Anthony Hopkins), who spiraled into schizophrenia until his death. Now, as his funeral approaches, we are made to realize that she, too, is afflicted, if not with madness then at least with the shadow of it. We see her first on the eve of her 27th birthday conversing rowdily with her departed father, who pops up throughout the film as it jumps around in time.
Robert's terse bluntness reveals a man who is going through the motions of sanity. Or is it that Hopkins is only going through the motions of acting? His performance is pallid. Perhaps the director, John Madden, was attempting to pit Hopkins's nothingness against Paltrow's everythingness. She's furiously overwrought from the start.
Madden previously directed Paltrow not only in "Shakespeare in Love" but also in a 2002 London stage production of "Proof," and he understands how to modulate her weepiness so that we can see the hurt and rage underneath. Paltrow has often been called upon to display her own actressy version of nothingness.
Although the Academy obviously disagrees, I thought her Oscar-winning turn in "Shakespeare in Love" was a fluttery piece of by-the-numbers emoting. But Paltrow has occasionally mined a richer, darker vein - in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard 8," for example, or in "Flesh and Bone," where she was convincingly rough-edged. Paltrow can seem so goddessy on screen - as if she had just stepped out of a shampoo commercial - that it's jolting whenever she attempts something scabrous. In "Proof," she seems to be drawing upon a fund of real pain and it does wonders for the film, which sorely needs wonderment.
Auburn's play, as adapted by Rebecca Miller, is primed to tackle weighty issues of insanity and art. (The mathematics in this movie, we are made to feel, is so elegantly complex that it qualifies as art.) "Proof" is also a drama about family ties that too tightly bind, not only between daughter and father but between sisters: Hope Davis's officious Claire arrives for the funeral with a gameplan to rescue her sister - who doesn't recognize she needs rescuing.
And "Proof" is a species of love story, too. Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), a former student of Robert's who is enamored of Catherine, is sure that somewhere in the old man's 103 notebooks of dotty scribblings are vestiges of his former greatness. His sort-of love affair with Catherine is on a collision course with his ambitions to reinstate Robert's reputation.
The love affair is the most engaging of these various elements, perhaps because it's the least pretentious. The byplay between Catherine and Hal captures the abrasiveness of a real relationship. Gyllenhaal, who has an ardent openness here, plays well with Paltrow, who reveals herself to him in brief bursts.
But at its highest level of ambition, "Proof" fails to deliver. The film becomes a psychological whodunit where Catherine is shown to be either a martyr to her father or else his intellectual equal. None of it is terribly convincing.
Although the filmmakers maintain the pretense that Catherine and Robert are individuals and not types, it's clear that their suffering has metaphoric weight. Genius has deranged them, and yet without derangement there is no genius. This is why Claire comes across as such a fussbudget and why Hal, no prodigy, is made out to be so sane: He is standing in for all us dullards who lack the inspiration to unlock the universe. In the world of "Proof," madness and creativity are one. It's a very old romantic notion; maybe it's time to put it to rest. Grade: B
• Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, language, and drug references.