October 20, 2005
by Amy Diaz
Gwyneth Paltrow reminds us all that, beneath the celebrity, she’s a
pretty good actress with her role as the daughter of a great
mathematician in Proof, a movie adapted from a play by David Auburn.
The play is adapted, not insignificantly I think, by Auburn and Rebecca
Miller, daughter of Arthur Miller and author of The Ballad of Jack and
Rose, a recent movie about a father-daughter relationship. Paltrow is
herself the daughter of a talented man, late filmmaker Bruce Paltrow. I
mention all this father-daughter-ness because, while Proof may at times
feel stagy and a bit overserious, it gets its central relationship spot
on, in part, I think, because of Paltrow and Miller’s influence.
Catherine (Paltrow) is a grumpy mess. Sitting alone watching late-night
television on her 27th birthday, she is interrupted from her memories
and self pity by her father Robert (Anthony Hopkins). A brilliant
mathematician with a lit professor’s ease with wit and language, Robert
attempts to cheer his daughter out of her gloom, convince her to go out
and have fun for her birthday. She doesn’t so much want to. For one
thing, 27 was about the age at which her father began to suffer from a
mental illness that began to eat away at his talent. For another thing,
as Robert himself points out, he’s dead. Catherine, just days after
losing her father, seems to be awash in grief, relief, worry and
confusion over what she should do now. Having cared for her father for
the last few years of his life, she seems at a loss to know what to do
with her own life — and unsure whether to even bother. Trying to pull
her out of herself are Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), one of her father’s
students and a fellow mathematician, and Claire (Hope Davis),
Catherine’s achieving older sister. Claire has come in from New York to
Chicago, where Robert lived, to take care of the funeral, to pack up and
sell the house and, she hopes, to bring Catherine back to New York. Hal
is sifting through Robert’s papers to see if any of the work he spent
his time on in the last few years was anything other than gibberish.
Both Claire’s chirpy offers of help and Hal’s geeky flirtations seem to
set uneasily with Catherine, who is suspicious of everyone’s motives,
even her own.
Though I rarely do this before seeing a movie, the delay between Proof’s
initial release and its appearance at a local theater resulted in my
seeing a few reviews for the film before I saw it. Several critics found
Paltrow’s character too much — too abrasive, too mopey, too
self-absorbed. I can see that, but to me the awkwardness of her
character was the awkwardness of someone who doesn’t recognize her own
skin, doesn’t know how to conduct herself in her own life. What might at
first glance look like constant bitchiness is, I think, a very good
portrayal of grief and fear. The fear is perhaps the best part of
Catherine’s character — so frequently in adult life fear manifests
itself in destructive ways. Fear is not an adult emotion, not one that
(barring extraordinary illness or threat of bodily harm) we are allowed
to feel. So it turns into paranoia or seclusion or anger or anything
else that won’t be immediately unveiled for the fear it really is.
Paltrow does this very well — perhaps it is the birth of her child or
the loss of her own father that has allowed her to connect with the
crazy side of uncertainty about the future.
And of course the fear comes escorted by the grief. Grief is
particularly well played here because it is the grief of losing someone
who isn’t just very much loved but who is very much tangled up in one’s
own identity. Catherine loves her father, yes, but she is also like him.
She sees his genius in herself and sees his faults in herself as well
and measures both of these aspects against him. Without his presence,
she seems at a loss for what to think about her own personality, her own
talents and her own problems.
times overly play-like, at times overly dramatic, Proof nonetheless does
an extremely good job examining these messy inexactitudes.