Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Auburn Proof centers on Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) a devoted daughter who must come to terms with the death of her father (Anthony Hopkins). He was a brilliant mathematician whose genius was crippled by mental insanity. As she deals with the devastating loss Catherine also is confronted with her own fears that she'll end up just like him. She's just as much as genius as her dad but at what price? The constant threat of madness weighs the girl down. It doesn't help that her estranged sister Claire (Hope Davis) pretty much believes Catherine is headed for the deep end and wants to whisk her away so she can take care of her. At least Catherine finds some solace in one of her father's former math students Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) who idolized her father--and has loved her from afar. But even this bright spot in Catherine's life is jeopardized when the proof is finally discovered. And that brilliant world-changing complicated proof just blows things all to hell.
With a film adapted from a play the onus naturally falls on the actors. Thankfully in Proof no one disappoints. Having already tackled the part on the London stage Paltrow slips into the very unglamorous downtrodden role once again convincingly playing Catherine with such pathos. It's exhausting to watch at times because we are always kept wondering whether she'll spiral out of control. The actress obviously had to dig deep--maybe too deep--but proves she can handle such affecting material. Luckily there are more upbeat characters in the movie. Typically relegated to playing depressives in such indies as American Splendor and About Schmidt Davis gets to be the optimistic one this time. As the perky Claire who long ago ran away from her dysfunctional family Davis comes off as the "bad guy " but one who conveys genuine concern for her sister. Also no stranger to indie films Gyllenhaal breaks away from his usual disheartened fare (Donnie Darko The Good Girl) and plays a rather animated fellow who is trying desperately to get through to the damaged girl he's fallen for. And then there's the venerable Anthony Hopkins as the demented dad. Although his appearances are brief they are entirely memorable and aptly detail the unwavering bond between father and daughter.
Of course you can't help but compare Proof to the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind in some ways. Both are about mathematicians whose minds are a little too brilliant for their own good. But while A Beautiful Mind is grand in scope and is a true cinematic experience Proof narrows down to the minutiae--but is still intriguing. Sure a movie about math might seem like a yawner but you're drawn in by the exceptional people whose genius won't let them cope with the real world. John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) previously directed the London production of the play. He does a nice job keeping things flowing especially in utilizing the shifts in time with flashbacks and flash forwards. But the film still has the talking heads problem. On stage it's acceptable for actors to stand around and give weighty emotional speeches about love life and relationships. On film you want more. Even if Madden takes the camera outside in the snow or to a university campus Proof is still peppered with those stage pieces. Luckily for the film crazy people are fascinating to watch.