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film review ***

‘Proof’ That Math and Hollywood Can MixPaltrow Shines in a Film Made for MIT

By Kathy Lin


Directed by John Madden

Based on the play by David Auburn

Written by David Auburn and Rebecca Miller

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Hope Davis

Rated PG-13

Hollywood once again successfully brings together mathematical genius and mental illness with “Proof,” which highlights issues of both daily and mathematical life in a way the average person — and certainly the MIT student — can appreciate.

“Proof,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, begins with the death of Robert (Anthony Hopkins), whose mathematical achievements brought him fame before mental illness overtook him. Left behind is his daughter and caretaker Katie (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose struggles including finding her place in a world without her father, the possibility of being mentally ill herself, and wonderfully, her own emergence as a mathematician.

Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), one of Robert’s former students, peruses the 100-plus journals Robert filled in his last years, searching for mathematical gems that might have arisen during a rare lucid moment. When Katie finally shows Hal a journal filled with a beautiful proof, he and Katie’s misguidedly intrusive sister Claire (Hope Davis) can’t accept Katie’s claim that she is the author.

The wonderfully-portrayed complex characters of “Proof” are the highlight of the movie. Should we love them and empathize with them, or should they disgust and frustrate us? Leading the pack is the genuine and appropriately pained Paltrow, who brings the viewer with her on an emotional roller coaster. When Claire first appears, you can immediately feel Katie’s repulsion for her. Just when Claire seems worthy of being called a bitch, though, you realize that’s precisely what she’s not. With the exception of Hopkins’ flat performance, the other characters similarly express myriad emotions. In the end, you identify with them all; for once, the characters in the movie are, like you, simply human.

The overall plot, though cliched at times, is generally captivating and realistic. The movie remarkably — and brilliantly — lacks mathematical content; though mathematicians may crave more, the ambiguity is far superior to the mathematical babble that has previously frequented the screen.

The subplot of Katie’s emergence and presence as a mathematician is particularly understandable. Her confidence wavers; she makes painful professional sacrifices for her family. She often feels disconnected from the “mainstream,” non-technical world, and although she is a brilliant mathematician, her abilities draw doubt even from those who love her most. For the first time on the big screen is a woman whose experiences highlight important challenges facing women in math and science today.

“Proof” is thought-provoking and genuine and particularly appealed to me as a math student and as a woman in science. Go see it; this film was almost made for us.