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Friday, Jan. 13, 2006

It adds up to a fine father-daughter yarn

Proof of My Life

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: John Madden
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: English
Opens Jan. 14
[See Japan Times movie listings]

There are few sights sadder than the wrecked remains of a once beautiful mind, and Anthony Hopkins plays out the damage with grand, King Lear-like majesty in "Proof" (released in Japan as "Proof of My Life").

News photo
Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Proof of My Life"

Hopkins plays Robert, a lauded University of Chicago mathematician described as having "done his best work by the time he turned 23." He went on to revolutionize mathematical logic but sank into dementia in his early 50s. Before his death at 63, he would prowl his huge, mausoleum of a house muttering theorems under his breath or scribbling in notebooks, which eventually formed towering stacks in the attic. In his moments of near-lucidity he would turn off the phone, sit outside in sub-zero temperatures, and outline a new "breakthrough theory" for prime numbers.

Slovenly and overweight, his eyes wild with delusional excitement, Robert is, however, definitely not pathetic. He doesn't attract sympathy, but rather an overwhelming curiosity. Can this seemingly helpless man be hiding something up his sleeve, like a dazzling, untapped gold mine of theorems?

It's this question that has former pet student Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) coming around to Robert's house before and after his death, scouring his notebooks in the hope of stumbling upon an unpublished theory of staggering brilliance. It's the same question that has given Robert's daughter/caretaker Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) the hope and strength to continue living with her deranged dad.

Based on David Auburn's hit Broadway play, "Proof" examines love and family relationships through the filter of mathematical theory -- and winds up proving that in life, as in math, a whole lot of mess is made and detours taken to arrive at the so-called "truth." And then, there's more mess and more detours to prove that it is indeed the truth and not the approximation of it. In "Proof," most of an entire life and one thick notebook is spent outlining just one mathematical proof and then a team of math experts discuss its validity night and day for a week.

Director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") doesn't play around with this material; clearly he thinks there's enough here to let the story speak for itself and allots the three core characters plenty of screentime. But it's Hopkins who dominates as Robert overshadows every seen -- in varying degrees of madness and brilliance. When he's not actually there he's talked about, and after his death, appears in flashbacks and even as a ghost in the opening scene.

In this, he's straight of back and fully lucid as he presents his daughter with a bottle of champagne to celebrate her birthday. "Why aren't you out partying? Don't you have friends?" he asks playfully, and Catherine replies in mock-deprecation: "I don't have friends -- you know that. I only have you." This, of course, was how she wanted to remember him; he had died a week before and she's all alone, swilling cheap bubbly straight from the bottle.

For Catherine, staying with Robert had not really been an option; she just did it. A gifted, if undisciplined, mathematician herself, she dropped out of graduate school to care for him when his condition worsened, even though in one painful scene Robert points out with merciless clarity that she did no work, but just slept and moped around the house. Actually, Catherine's fear that she had inherited Robert's madness as well as his talent, paralyzed her and she could not be productive. And having been around Robert all her life, she knew how the gift of mathematical thinking could incredibly enhance a personality as well as violently destroy it -- she had seen it happen before her own eyes and was terrified of the same fate.

Paltrow gives an intelligent performance of conflicting feelings (loyalty to her father and wanting to be independent) here, not at all repeating the domestic, sexual hysteria she had going on in "Sylvia." When Catherine unleashes her rage she does it logically, choosing the most precise, succinct sentences. Too bad that the people who care about her the most -- Hal and her older sister, Claire (Hope Davis in an over-the-top yuppie role) -- are at the receiving end of her outbursts. Their stricken faces show how scathing but right-on-the-mark her accusations are. ("You're nothing, you're just a whiny mediocre math geek," is one of the remarks she flings at Hal). The coup de gra^ce comes at Robert's funeral, where she suddenly gets up, walks to the podium and announces bluntly: "I'm glad he's dead."

This talent (and need for) precision is one of the traits father and daughter shared, which at times made their co-habitation unbearable.

As far as cinematic father-daughter relationships go, "Proof" offers a fascinating glimpse into one that's unruly and unconventional, never once slipping into the Hollywood staple of easy emotional declarations. It should be noted that Robert and Catherine never once express their feelings for each other -- their bond rejected all cliches, and they were both concerned with something else entirely.

From the depths of dementia, Robert was always pushing his daughter: "Come on, Catherine! Think, think!" It was a hell of an inheritance for a young woman, but in the end, a suitable one for Catherine. She had learned from Robert that her personal salvation didn't exist anywhere except within the confines of her own, mathematical mind.

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