Hippo Manchester
October 20, 2005


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Proof (PG-13)
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.

At times overly play-like, at times overly dramatic, Proof nonetheless does an extremely good job examining these messy inexactitudes.