The Broadway hit Proof put playwright David Auburn's name on the map, earned him a shelf full of prizes (from Tony to Pulitzer), and reminded those of us who stopped paying attention that Mary-Louise Parker was a star. A movie adaptation was inevitable, though a drastic mishandling of the material was not.
Familiarity with Auburn's stage presentation may breed contempt for this version, which feels distinctly off-kilter from its first frames. Mysteries that held water longer in the theater instead land like Doc Marten's on a flimsy piece of plywood here. Director John Madden samples a chatty, analytical approach to his literal translation but gets swept up in stagy, awkward, and all-too-deliberate line readings. Much like last year's ill-conceived Phantom of the Opera, this movie has few cinematic qualities that elevate it above a tedious and emotionless play rehearsal shot on location.
Need a reason as to why Proof goes so horribly wrong? Look no further than Rebecca Miller's screenwriting credit. Her unique penchant for shrill incoherence taints the bulk of this piece, reverting interesting stage characters into whirling dervishes of catty despair. The picture opens on Catherine (a sullen Gwyneth Paltrow) as she engages her browbeating father, Robert (Anthony Hopkins), in a convoluted conversation on personal sanity and death. Before we're able to settle into their disjointed groove, a vital twist that drives Auburn's play is unceremoniously revealed: Robert himself is dead and Catherine's coping with the loss.
The math genius's demise invites unwelcome intruders into Catherine's closed-off and relatively unstable existence. Her domineering sister, Claire (Hope Davis), arrives from New York to assess the fragile situation. At the same time, Robert's protégé Hal (a hopelessly miscast Jake Gyllenhaal) strives to filter through the legendary mathematician's journals in hopes of finding publishable work. Claire wants to protect Catherine, Hal wants to sleep with her, and Catherine just wants to know if she's going to follow her father's mentally ill footsteps.
Spending time with these characters is a chore. Catherine's incessant tap dance around her own stability drives us crazy. Paltrow strives for wounded but consistently lands on whiny, selfish, and unpleasant. She and Gyllenhaal share levels of chemistry last seen between the Titanic and an iceberg. Paltrow's harsh interactions are one-sided rants fired at unsuspecting co-stars, and only Hopkins shows the restraint needed to balance the actress's overbearing approach. She elicits no sympathy as she alienates Davis, Gyllenhaal, Hopkins and - in turn - the audience.
When we arrive at the central mystery of Madden's version - whether or not Catherine actually wrote a groundbreaking mathematical proof found in her father's office - the saddest realization is that we don't care about the answer. Arguments normally reserved for Sunday morning political talk shows chip away at the film's integrity until we're left with a bitter core. Character motivations flip faster than cards on a blackjack table. Catherine claims authorship of the proof, then she ignores it. Hal refutes her ability to write it then forces himself on her (at her father's wake, no less). Proof can't conjure a single legitimate thread, or an emotion to back it up. "What is the point of all these questions?" shrieks Catherine when those around her get too close. If only Proof had a legitimate answer.
You're fat. You want me to prove it?