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"Proof" Explores Thin Line Between Brilliance and Insanity

"Proof" Explores Thin Line Between Brilliance and Insanity

Release Date:  September 16, 2005
Rating:  PG-13 (sexual content, language, drug references)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  1 hr. 39 min.
Director:  John Madden
Actors:  Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis, Gary Houston

“Is that guy a super genius, or is he just crazy?” Quite likely, when someone watches a movie seeking to answer this question, he or she will compare it to "A Beautiful Mind." So it’s almost impossible to watch "Proof" without remembering the giant that came before. And while "Proof" is certainly no "Beautiful Mind," it is certainly a poignant and thoughtful look at the supposed thin line between brilliance and insanity.

Based on a Tony-winning play, "Proof" tells the story of Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) a talented mathematics student who must deal with the death of her father Robert (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant mathematician whose groundbreaking work in his field has brought him high honors and acclaim. Yet at the end of his life, Robert suffers from dementia that forces him to all but give up his work. Rather than commit him to an institution, as older daughter Claire (Hope Davis) believes is best, Catherine drops out of school to become her father’s full-time caretaker. In doing so, she puts her own budding career as a mathematician on hold. And while Catherine has clearly inherited some of her father’s brilliance, in dealing with his illness, she fears she may have inherited his proclivity for mental instability.

If you are anything like me, you choose your current line of work (writing and editing for example) because you were told, as Chevy Chase once famously said, “there would be no math.” So watching a movie about mathematicians is probably not high on your “to do” list. But the mathematics in "Proof" is more a backdrop than the main focus, and doesn’t overwhelm the story. Even avowed math haters can appreciate the issues Catherine confronts. The movie is at its strongest when depicting Catherine’s intense struggle with her father’s problems, and her bossy sister’s seeming lack of support and understanding.

Paltrow shines as she portrays Catherine dealing with her complicated life. When her father’s mathematical protégée Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) wants to mine her father’s work for evidence of his past brilliance, she is at first ambivalent to his presence.  But she quickly becomes so agitated with him that she is on the phone with the police, claiming he is an intruder who has broken into her house. She makes a scene at her father’s funeral when she sees how many people are there; “friends” of Robert who haven’t seen him in five years, and never visited him while he was sick. When Claire arrives to help arrange their father’s affairs, Catherine is at first tolerant of her sister’s badgering but soon begins to lash out at Claire’s insinuation that Catherine is losing her mind. The well-written dialogue quickly goes from humorous sibling bickering, to intense fighting over deep emotional wounds from years past. Since the police say that Catherine was alone when they responded to her intruder call, Claire wonders if Hal is even a real person. Apparently she, too, has seen "A Beautiful Mind."

Catherine gradually warms up to Hal (and ends up sleeping with him after her father’s funeral) and reveals to him some of her own mathematical work. Believing the formulas scribbled in a green notebook are part of Robert’s work, Hal exclaims that the mathematical notes reveal a new breakthrough in the field. When Catherine claims the notebook as her own, both Hal and Claire are skeptical. Is Catherine a liar? Is she insane like her father? Or is she possibly even more brilliant than Robert in his prime? Catherine wrestles with these questions right along with them.

A few aspects of "Proof" keep it from being a truly great movie. Catherine’s relationship with her father is shown largely through flashbacks that are unfortunately choppy and sometimes hard to follow. The movie also doesn’t seem to adapt too well from stage to screen. Many of the scenes are much longer than moviegoers will be used to, and the sets don’t change much.

Despite these detractions, "Proof" effectively portrays both the highs and lows of the human mind. The Psalmist prayed, “I will give thanks to You for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” (Psalm 139:14). Our minds are so incredibly complex, that contemporary science still has not conquered them. Mankind can conceive brilliant abstract thoughts on the wonders of the universe, yet the inner workings of our own heads are largely elusive to us. Our character, our humanity is often revealed in how we deal with both our greatness, and our frailty. "Proof" gives us a poignant look at that humanity.

AUDIENCE:  Older teens and up


  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Catherine gets a bottle of champagne for her birthday. People drink heavily (and get drunk) at a party following Robert’s funeral. Hal talks about mathematicians he knows who use recreational drugs.
  • Language/Profanity:  A moderate amount of profanity (including a few instances of taking the Lord’s name in vain) is sprinkled throughout the movie. Several arguments with emotional screaming may be a bit too intense for children.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Catherine and Hal get drunk and have sex. No nudity is shown, but the scene pushes the envelope of the film’s PG-13 rating. Catherine is shown twice in her underwear, in the aforementioned scene and in a clothing store dressing room.
  • Violence:  None