In a movie that’s going to draw inevitable comparisons to Closer, acting and writing have to be a focus. Proof, like Closer, is a dialogue-heavy, character-driven drama adapted from a very successful play. And just like Closer, it attracted an impressive cast and a big time director.
Closer had Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Jude Law and Clive Owen, a cast as notable for its box office clout as its talent. Proof stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Hope Davis, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anthony Hopkins, four highly regarded actors, but none with the almost guaranteed draw of Roberts or Law.
Likewise, Proof director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) has a lot of talent, but can’t compare to Closer’s Mike Nichols, who has everything from The Graduate to The Birdcage under his belt.
Proof could be accused of being a second rate Closer, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair. On a lot of levels, it’s better. Breaking the film down scene by scene, Proof has a lot of great moments and Madden’s rich visuals help things move along. But put together as a whole, it lacks the tightness and sharp feel that made Closer one of the top films of 2004.
Proof is a long shot at best for Oscar nominations, but isn’t immediately forgettable either. Hopkins is in top form as a brilliant mathematician cut off from his work by his building insanity. Gyllenhaal finally follows up on the promise he showed in Donnie Darko, playing his first meaty dramatic role in quite a while. Davis is solid as always, doing a lot with a less-than-juicy part. The problem is with the lead, Paltrow, who is trying her best here, but just seems to drum up most of the other characters she’s played over the years.
Paltrow had the same role in the play, probably to better success, since overly emotional performances seem to play a lot better on stage than on the screen. When a play is adapted into a film, something has to become more real about it. The irony of this is obvious, but regardless, acting for the sake of acting is tolerated and even celebrated in theatre. In film, acting has to be for the good of the whole story. In a movie full of good actors, if the story doesn’t come together like it should, the performances are wasted.
Paltrow’s acting in Proof isn’t technically bad, and part of the blame should lie on playwright David Auburn, who adapted his own work into a screenplay along with Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity). Paltrow’s character is the center of the film, but commands no sympathy from the viewer. The problem isn’t that she’s a bad person, but that she’s annoying. She’s whiny and mopey, and Paltrow simply isn’t skilled enough to project some internal secret that overcomes this. She puts everything on the outside, and it’s far too much for the audience to stand.
Auburn’s story, however, is a good one, more interesting than Closer from a basic plot standpoint. Hopkins plays Paltrow’s father, and Gyllenhaal her love interest. Davis is her strict, overly sensible sister, the film’s only semi-villain. The plot centers around a stunningly complicated proof contained in a notebook, one important enough to make a big impact on modern math. Its authorship is debated, and Hopkins’ mental state comes into question when he is considered to have written it. There are a lot of twists and turns along the way, presented through flashbacks and lengthy dialogue scenes.
Proof is a good film that’s hurt by its stylistic similarities to a better film, Closer. The moments in which it shines make it worth watching, although it’s disappointing to see just how close it was to moving from good to great.
Shawn Wines can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.