2 stars (out of four)
On stage, "Proof," David Auburn's four-character, one-porch play about charismatically depressed Hyde Park math wonks, did its middlebrow thing and did it well. It told the story of Catherine, the daughter of an addled University of Chicago mathematical genius. One of the professor's students, Hal, discovers a groundbreaking proof in an old notebook. Then Catherine levels Hal, her new lover, with a big secret, an Act One closing zinger that reliably sends theater audiences out to the lobby making noises like "hmmm!" and "oooohhhh!" while chuckling at Auburn's old-style dramatic stinger.
On film, neither theatrical zingers nor theatrical stingers sound quite right. Instead of "oooohhhh!" the reaction tends toward: "Oh?" Or just plain: "Oh." You sense the "oh" just after Gwyneth Paltrow delivers the big secret to Jake Gyllenhaal in the earnest but sloggy adaptation of "Proof," starring Paltrow and directed by John Madden, who worked together under the happier circumstances of "Shakespeare in Love," as well as a recent London stage production of Auburn's play.
The stage version of "Proof" was a smartly crafted, commercially viable item, a bit of a drama, a bit of a mystery and, in Chicago, Auburn's play will always find a stage home if only because it pits its Chicago heroine against her shallow New Yorker sister. (Sympathy-wise, the Chicagoan wins.) Unlike the play, which carries a punchy, enjoyable rhythm, the film takes itself very seriously. Madden goes for all the probing psychological insight he can find, and the material does not cooperate.
Taken from Auburn's screenplay, further adapted by Rebecca Miller, "Proof" respects the story's trappings of mental illness and prime-number wizardry all out of sensible proportion. Without the humor, there's not much beneath the surface conflicts between Catherine and her addled father (Anthony Hopkins, visibly distracted in the wrong way; he seems to be playing Lear Lite, especially when railing outdoors in crummy weather), or Catherine and her anal, controlling sibling (Hope Davis), or Catherine and the puppy-dog grad student (Gyllenhaal).
Paltrow has her moments; her father died not long before she filmed "Proof," and it shows. Her Catherine is a portrait in grief and doubt, and it may be enough for audiences, especially if they find "Proof" on DVD or television where the stakes and nagging questions of actual movie quality are so much lower. On a smaller screen, at least, it's easier to watch solid, sincere actors do their best to juice up some stage-bound material. Madden honors the play's roots; he has not made the mistake of opening it up with a lot of obvious visual expansions. But the story's genial unpretentiousness has been darkened and weighed down, and what's left is less than prime.
Directed by John Madden; screenplay by David Auburn and Rebecca Miller; cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler; production design by Alice Normington; music by Stephen Warbeck; edited by Mick Audsley; produced by John Hart, Robert Kessel, Alison Owen and Jeff Sharp. A Miramax release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some sexual content, language and drug references).
Catherine - Gwyneth Paltrow
Robert - Anthony Hopkins
Claire - Hope Davis
Hal - Jake Gyllenhaal