reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, October 24, 2005


Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, an affectionate romp through the mathematics of chaos theory, and his Hapgood, an inexplicable explication of quantum mechanics, are the masterpiece and failure, respectively, of the theatre's recent interest in scholars. Other examples include Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, Margaret Edson's Wit, and David Auburn's Proof, a drama about mathematicians that ran for 900 performances on Broadway, a street not previously known for its math-friendliness.

Some critics have derided Proof as "middlebrow" for showing few of the formulas that obsess the main characters. In reality, "middlebrow" is a compliment, since it means a script pitched well above the contemporary average. In the admirable middlebrow tradition, Proof displays a healthy respect for mathematicians and an informative interest in those aspects of their careers that we can comprehend, such as their fear of losing their creativity before they hit 30.

Now, John Madden (not the football maven but the English director) has made Proof into a film that is likable and often funny, if perhaps a bit too tidy and benign. It stars Hollywood's favorite portrayers of highbrows, Sir Anthony "Hannibal the Cannibal" Hopkins and Gwyneth Paltrow, who won an Oscar in Madden's "Shakespeare in Love" and played an English professor in the 2002 adaptation of A.S. Byatt's dazzling scholastic novel Possession.

Ironically, Sir Anthony freely admits to interviewers that he is a lowbrow who fled his apparent destiny as Lord Olivier's successor on the Shakespearean stage to be a Hollywood movie star, which allows him to indulge his hobby of roaring around rural America in 1960s muscle cars. Paltrow's higher education consisted of one year of art history at UC Santa Barbara.

In "Proof," Paltrow plays the gifted but troubled daughter of Hopkins' mathematician (roughly modeled on John Nash of "A Beautiful Mind"), who revolutionized three fields before going schizophrenia struck at age 26. She had put her own math studies on hold to nurse him for the last five years, during one of which he was lucid enough to try to do new work. In the first scene, friendless on her 27th birthday, she converses with him, which raises questions in her own mind about whether she'd inherited his insanity, since he had died the week before.

(There is a thin line between genius and eccentricity, and sometimes between genius and manic-depression, but Nash's biographer called him the "tragic exception" to the rule that schizophrenia precludes great accomplishment. Nash was the rare prodigy who had already proven his brilliance before he began hearing from space aliens at the age of thirty.)

A kindly young mathematician, played by Jake Gyllenhaal ("Day after Tomorrow"), is rooting about in her father's 103 gibberish-filled notebooks, searching for one last spasm of insight, when she gives him another notebook. To his astonishment, it contains the long-awaited proof of a famous conjecture about prime numbers (perhaps the Riemann Hypothesis of 1859, the subject of John Derbyshire's 2003 book Prime Obsession, which has become the K2 of mathematics in the decade since Andrew Wiles conquered math's Mt. Everest by proving Fermat's Last Theorem).

Then, the daughter claims to have written it. But how do you prove the provenance of a proof?

Sir Anthony hasn't bothered to master an American accent. His British intonation helped wreck his last performance as a professor, in 2003's rendition of Philip Roth's The Human Stain, where Hopkins played, with zero verisimilitude, a part-black academic passing as white.

In "Proof," though, he merely has to read his lines, and he can still enunciate with the best of them. Unfortunately, his superb diction undermines Paltrow's visually strong performance because, burdened by her grating Valley Girl accent, she has possibly the worst-sounding voice of any celebrated actress since Elizabeth Taylor.

Amusingly, many critics have denounced Gyllenhaal as too handsome to play a theoretician (they must never have seen photographs of the young Einstein), without mentioning the implausibility of Paltrow -- who, while she may not be the classic beauty of her reputation, is plenty adorable -- as a math whiz.

"Proof," fortunately, is largely lacking in the feminist resentment that has been focused on college math departments since last winter's Larry Summers brouhaha (for instance, all 30 full professors at Chicago are male). As Gyllenhaal's character makes clear, there's nothing the men of mathematics would like more than for beautiful young women to share their passion.

Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, language and drug references.


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