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September 30, 2005

Proof's transition to big screen less than genius

Films that have delayed releases are generally films of which one should be wary (Prozac Nation with Christina Ricci, Warren Beatty's flop Town and Country). So it was with a bit of trepidation that I went to see Proof.

Proof, you will remember, is the film adapted from U of C alum David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. For the upperclassman on campus, seeing the film crews on campus was a regular feature of fall quarter 2003.

The U of C (and its grad students) have never looked more beautiful than in John Madden's film. The campus is almost weighed down by the colorful autumnal foliage. The wood-paneled classrooms of the Div School are suitable for the awesome task they are asked to meet—housing the geniuses of the math department.

Once you get past wishing that Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) was a real 150s professor instead of an imaginary 26-year-old over-the-hill grad student, he proves believable enough. Gwyneth Paltrow is convincing as Catherine, the daughter of a brilliant yet crazy mathematician (Anthony Hopkins) who fears that she has not only inherited her father's genius, but his mental instability as well.

And thus we are presented with what should be an Academy Award-ready film: well-respected actors and actresses; a story of mental instability and genius; and a premiere academic institution (think A Beautiful Mind).

Unfortunately, it doesn't work out as well as it should. The film isn't bad per se—it just isn't compelling in the way the play is. The Goodman Theater had an excellent production of Proof last fall. Auburn's script doesn't need Gwyneth Paltrow and autumnal leaves. It needs to be left alone.

The story is essentially one of human interaction. These interactions are full of small moments—fear, jealousy and anger—which are given magnitude and weight when acted out on stage. On film, however, these human moments are lost beneath the glossiness of the film.

In one scene, Claire (Hope Davis), having just returned from New York to help bury her father, sits with Catherine, her sister, on the family's porch and asks her about what type of conditioner she's using. Claire insists that Catherine try a new conditioner with jojoba. Catherine presses Claire to explain how and what jojoba is and the sisters jab at each other.

In the film, Claire comes across as a know-it-all nag. And, in many ways, she is. However, in the play, it is much easier to see this simple act of discussing shampoo as Claire's way of reaching out to a sister that she too fears has inherited their father's craziness. Because she fears what her sister has become in her absence, Claire tries to bridge that gap with anything she can. In the film, this doesn't come through.

The failure of Proof lies not in a poor screen adaptation, but rather in the innate theatricality of the original script. The play wasn't written in a way that adapts well to the screen. In the theatrical version, the cast is limited to four actors and all the action occurs on the back porch of a Hyde Park house.

Thus at times the film can feel both forced and somewhat claustrophobic. Madden was able to add several scenes that take the action away from the house. Most notably of these added scenes is the memorial service in Rockefeller where playing "name that extra" is a fun game. Though Catherine's outburst at the end of the service isn't quite believable, it is easy to understand its place in the film—it must have been frustrating for Auburn and Madden to find ways to take the action away from the back porch.

These added scenes move the action off the porch (which is good), but there are still only so many ways to do this. We get the obligatory shots of the Chicago skyline and a few nice moments of Catherine contemplating her fate at the Point (yay for authenticity!). These scenes I didn't mind as much for what they were as for how they affected the way we, as the audience, understand the dialogue and the story.

Yet despite the failings of the film, there are some great moments, especially for those of us who know or even love the U of C. Auburn, an alum of the college, peppers the script with the type of joke that anyone connected with the U of C can appreciate. When Catherine tells her father she will pursue a graduate program at Northwestern, he looks at her, dumfounded, and incredulously asks, "Do you really want to live in Evanston?"

Another piece of priceless dialogue (at least for a U of C nerd) comes after the funeral of Anthony Hopkins' Robert. Claire, talking to someone who has come to pay his respects for her father, asks the man if he, too, is a mathematician. "Me?" he responds, "God, no! I'm a theoretical physicist."

Ah, theoretical physics.