Among the crop of actors currently making their debuts as directors, none has taken on a more difficult subject than Matthew Broderick with "Infinity," a movie that may be the most offbeat love story of the year.
     The material, based on Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman's autobiographical accounts of his first marriage, attempts to capture a romance that was made extraordinary by the personalities of the lovers, by the depth of their commitment and by the circumstances surrounding their last years together. Feynman was working on the atomic bomb in Los Alamos; his wife, Arline, was dying from tuberculosis in an Albuquerque clinic.
     Broderick, directing himself and Patricia Arquette from a script written by his artist mother, Patricia Broderick, works through this melodrama with more earnestness than skill, but on this occasion, earnestness is far the more important quality.
     An experienced director likely would have insisted on a more polished and faster-paced script. Patricia Broderick credits much of her first screenwriting effort to advice from old family friend Horton Foote, and her attempts to follow the novelist-screenwriter's patient, character-driven style results in periodic aimlessness.
     But if the Feynmans' story was to be told at all, it had to be done this way, as a leisurely evolution, following the couple from high school sweethearts to young adults flush with passion to newlyweds who can't even kiss, lest he become infected. Together, they face the most profound crises, and face them with a matter-of-factness most people would characterize, at the very least, as peculiar.
     Feynman, his natural curiosity nurtured by a father (Peter Riegert) who adores science, is a prodigy of probability, a rationalist who sees the world only in facts and inevitabilities. And Arline Greenbaum, an aspiring artist whose world view has a much larger and more sensitive palette, shares with him an absolute commitment to truth. Together, they adopt the motto, "What Do You Care What Other People Think?," and with only one dodgy moment, they follow it to the very end.
     That exception comes when Feynman allows himself to be talked into hiding from his fiancee her diagnosis of lymphatic tuberculosis, assuring her instead that she has glandular fever, another name for the less life-threatening mononucleosis. When she confronts him a second time, he blurts out the truth, and instead of anger, she reacts with empathy for the pressure that forced him to lie.
     Broderick and Arquette play out this tragic relationship without falling into the cliches of romantic melodrama. In his autobiography, Feynman marvels at his lack of overt sentiment over Arline's fate. It was simply an inevitability, like the splitting of the atom, that both accepted.
     Feynman, who died at 70 in 1988, was clearly an odd duck, a scientist so devoted to probability, he denied himself emotional release. Arline was the love of his life, and he and she knew it, but he could only express the depth of his feeling through the intellectual exercise of writing about it decades later.      Thanks to Broderick's earnestness, as both director and star, he assures that the audience will have no such trouble.

Infinity, 1996. PG, for thematic elements, mild sensuality and language. Times guideline: dramatic elements over the heads of preteens. A Neo Motion Pictures Production, distributed by First Look Pictures. Director Matthew Broderick. Producers Broderick, Patricia Broderick, Joel Soisson, Michael Leahy. Screenplay Patricia Broderick. Photography Toyomichi Kurita. Editors Elena Maganini, Bill Johnson, Amy Young. Production design Bernt Capra. Art director Jeffrey "Tex" Schell. Music Bruce Broughton. Costumes Mary Jane Fort. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes. Matthew Broderick as Richard Feynman. Patricia Arquette as Arline Greenbaum. Peter Riegert as Mel Feynman. Dori Brenner as Tutti Feynman.

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