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The personal life of a brillant young physicist


Directed by Matthew Broderick.

Written by Patricia Broderick, based on the autobiographies of Richard Feynman, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"

Starring Mathew Broderick, Patricia Arquette, and Jeffrey Force.

By Yaron Koren
Staff Reporter

The story of larger-than-life physicist Richard Feynman '39 is one of the relatively few in the annals of science to have truly sparked the public's interest. As MIT students, most of us are familiar with the legends told of his undergraduate days here on campus as a frat boy and math prodigy, his later instrumental work on the Manhattan Project, his Nobel Prize-winning research, and his numerous hobbies and indulgences, including playing the bongos in a Brazilian band. A man of boundless energy and zest for life, he seems like the perfect subject for a screen treatment. Infinity is the first-ever celluloid incarnation of Feynman, with Matthew Broderick playing the lead role, and its handling of the subject matter is nothing if not surprising.

The makers of the movie have chosen to focus on a little-known aspect of Feynman's life: his first marriage, to Arline Greenbaum, which was cut short in 1945 when she fell to Hodgkin's Disease. Her health had been slowly deteriorating in the years before that; Infinity is set during this time period. It shows us his most recognizably human sides: those of ardent lover and caring husband. But it does so to the exclusion of any real exploration of Feynman's personality or his amazingly intuitive brand of genius. Infinity takes a more simplistic, she-was-the-only-equation-he-couldn't-solve approach that seems better suited to a made-for-TV movie than a full-fledged screen biopic.

Patricia Arquette plays well the tragic Arline, and makes her suffering plausible without becoming a martyr. Even as the disease reaches its terminal stages, Arquette shows her remaining strong and enjoying life in her moments of clarity. Broderick, too, turns in a very good performance. His thick Brooklyn accent is impeccable, and in general he projects a wide-eyed amusement at the world, coupled with unshakable sincerity.

Perhaps it is partly the result of Borderick's almost disturbingly youthful appearance, but this Feynman looks and acts like a 12-year-old boy trapped in a man's body. Broderick is at his best when he plays up this aspect of the scientist, as when he gleefully demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the seemingly impenetrable security system of the Manhattan Project.

But these scenes come far too rarely. Arline finds out about her disease within the first half an hour, and after that the bulk of the movie is spent in a sea of hospital rooms and concerned looks. To speed up the section of Arline's deterioration, the movie has Feynman summarize what happened with an annoying voiceover technique. Still, no time is left to show us even a glimpse of the powers of observation that led to Feynman widely being recognized during his lifetime as the world's smartest man. The closest we come is an early scene in which he beats out, using pencil and paper, an old Chinese man with an abacus in an arithmetic contest. This hardly qualifies as a display of genius.

Ironically, even the character of Arline, with all the attention placed on her, remains little more than a cipher on the screen. She is strong-willed but lacks any identifiable personality. She seems to have no acquaintances other than Feynman and no hobbies other than ordering personalized pencils by mail. What was it about Arline that attracted this brilliant and intensely active man to her? The movie never satisfyingly explains this.

After watching it, I was curious to know the answer to this apparent anomaly, so I re-read some of James Gleick's Genius, the definitive biography of Feynman. Her characterization there is quite at odds with the film portrayal: Gleick describes her as a woman of high culture, with "well-bred talents for playing the piano, singing, drawing, and conversing about literature and the arts." The closest Infinity gets to showing us any of this is a scene in which Arline plunks down some notes on a toy piano which Feynman bought her.

Perhaps Infinity is successful as a love story, or even as a medical tearjerker. But the fact that the movie deliberately squanders an opportunity to explore the exhilarating life of Richard Feynman makes it, in my mind, a waste of two hours.