The last time John Madden directed Gwyneth Paltrow on-screen, the occasion was "Shakespeare in Love," in which the pleasures of straight theater looked like sheer adrenaline-fueled bliss. It's logical, then, that the next cinematic act from the Madden-Paltrow tandem should be "Proof," an actual Tony- and Pulitzer-winning drama. And it's pretty ironic that Madden, whose films tend to be handsome but conventional, now tries to hide the fact that he's filmed a play.
It's okay that his masquerade doesn't entirely work. "Proof," David Auburn's drama about a math whiz who fears she's losing her mind, has a tidy four-character construction that reeks of the modern stage, even though Madden and the screenwriters -- Auburn and Rebecca Miller, Arthur's daughter -- find small ways to make the story less housebound. (Onstage, it all took place on a Chicago back porch.) The filmmakers even add a penny ante car chase in which love interest Jake Gyllenhaal runs after a vehicle that's whisking Paltrow away.
For the most part, though, they stick to what made "Proof" a success in the first place: an involving story, bright, logic-driven dialogue, and a killer role full of wit and suffering for an actress who can radiate star power through layers of grubby depression.
"Proof" brings Paltrow back to "Sylvia" territory: Her character, Catherine, is whip smart and miserable, which Paltrow registers with supple flickers of hope and dread. (Madden's camera hovers close to his star, not wanting to miss a nuance.) Her performance is layered in grief, and she's less wry than stage Catherines have tended to be -- the character throws off random lively sparks that Madden and Paltrow are content to leave muted, but that keeps the audience in tune with the significant fact that Robert, Catherine's math genius father, has just died.
Mentally, Robert went 'round the bend years ago, and this effectively doubles his daughter's anguish. Catherine's offhand facility with tricky Germain primes (prime numbers that equal 2p+1; no further questions, please) seem to be proof that Catherine has Daddy's brains. The trouble is that those brains seem to be congenitally diseased.
And therein lies "Proof's" resonance and fascination -- the threat of madness, and the unsettling effect it has on an apparently brilliant woman whose life hasn't really begun. Robert haunts his daughter in the best and worst ways, and it feels like a luxury to have Anthony Hopkins playing the part, applying his mastermind facilities not to psychopathic cannibalism but to world-class math. The intellect reels forward, then hits a wall and the eyes go blank. No wonder Catherine's terrified of her future.
Less rich are Auburn's two supporting figures, Claire (Hope Davis) and Hal (Gyllenhaal). Claire is a thinly drawn foil right down to her name: Where Catherine is understandably rumpled, older sister Claire is all clarity, from her snappy wardrobe to her practical if heartless scheme to sell the family house right out from under Catherine. (Thanks goodness for Davis, who handles the part with the lightest possible touch.) As Hal, a former acolyte of Robert's, Gyllenhaal looks great, and you feel good for Catherine that a kindly hunk has come her way. But a plausible budding math prof at the University of Chicago he ain't.
Still, the balance of "Proof" is positive. Auburn's dialogue is professional and clever, as is the plot about a major new proof found in Robert's desk, which leads to an urgent question of who wrote it, and which demands that Catherine and Hal prove themselves to one another in particular ways. And Paltrow is pretty commanding, even if Madden pushes things toward airlessness by keeping the camera so tight. The anguish on that lovely, haggard face -- you're right there with her, yearning for the moment you both can finally breathe.
Proof (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for a grad school milieu that includes drug references, a drunken love scene and intermittent foul language.