This fall, when Miramax’s vaults have been emptied out and, for better of worse, the American public finally gets a peek at what the Weinsteins were keeping under wraps, you may feel a tinge of regret that they won’t be doing that thing they do anymore. But if you happen to catch the terminally botched film version of the Pulitzer-Prize winning play Proof, you may well exhale a sigh of relief. Held over for nearly a year when the studio brass wisely decided that Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator was the film they’d put their Oscar marketing muscle behind, it seems exactly like the type of film that Miramax loved getting behind. But as Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show would say, “in spirit anyway.”
Proof tells the tale of Catherine (Gwnyeth Paltrow), a brittle, sullen
27-year-old suffering from an acute depression which coincides with the death of her beloved mathematics god of a father (Anthony Hopkins), who eventually went bughouse after years of trying to top his best work, as mathematics experts know is nearly impossible in such a field after a peak age of, say, 22. Catherine sleeps until late afternoon, lazes around in the same clothes daily, and is mostly oblivious to Harold (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has been sleuthing around the family home looking for important work the late professor may have left behind. Catherine’s rigid routine is further hampered by the intrusion of sister Claire (Hope Davis), a haughty New Yorker in town for Dad’s funeral, who has designs on a new life for her younger sister. And Catherine has a habit of conversing with her dead father, who she may share more in common with than she would like.
By design, the play was a whodunit without any murder weapons, as the play featured an intermission jaw-dropper that set the pivotal drama in motion. David Auburn’s stage play was far from Shakespearean tragedy, but it had an undeniable flow and briskly took you through its central story like any good, old-fashioned piece of theater would. It also had Mary-Louise Parker’s thrilling, unpredictable performance, which was complex in its subtleties and shadings and continually kept Auburn’s play from skimming bathos. In every scene, you were continually questioning her motives, not to mention her lucid sanity, which always kept springing surprises on its audience.
As played by Paltrow (reprising her performance in the West End version, also directed by John Madden), Catherine is reduced to the equivalent of a valley girl whose boyfriend may have just dumped her. I have no frame of reference for Paltrow’s London thesping, but if it was as actorly and unconvincing as she is in the film, it may have derailed the entire production. Despite an Academy Award on her mantle, Paltrow is one of the most underrated modern actresses working (somebody someday will finally take notice of her brave, career-best performance in the Farrelly brothers’ Shallow Hal, as naked a portrayal of female insecurity as the cinema has ever seen), but her wan, whiny take on this role suggests her Margot Tenenbaum removed of poignancy and droll sensibility. She simply does not work at all.
Hopkins continues his streak of glazed ham roles with his bug-eyed overacting here, though Gyllenhaal and Davis are effective (if unoriginal) in the more stock roles of love interest and arch nemesis, respectively. Their roles, as in the play, are more catalysts to bounce scenes off of, but they play to their strengths as actors. Not that anybody gets much assistance from director Madden, a filmmaker who seems to flatten out every film he comes aboard on. Just as he kept Shakespeare in Love years ago from leaping into greatness with his banal direction, he similarly keeps things stately and sleepy here.
As with many of their past films, Miramax foolishly “cleaned up” Proof to be palatable to teenagers (several scenes bear postproduction looping, taking the word “fuck” out whenever possible), though I couldn’t imagine why. Instead of probing, thoughtful ruminations on madness and genius, we’re treated to a trite, PG-13 version of the same, which in turn dilutes what made much of Auburn’s play relatable. And what Rebecca Miller was actually needed for on this adaptation will forever remain a mystery. Auburn’s play was taut enough as is, and all of the movie’s additional scenes are wretched, creating customary “Oscar” clips that completely go against the grain of the characters. One low point has Paltrow smugly taking over a church podium at her father’s funeral (never seen in the play) and speechifying, something this woman would never, ever do. When shown as mostly passive in virtually every other scene, it makes absolutely no sense except to awards whores, who will lap up any scene in which Paltrow gets teary. And some of the added dialogue sounds like it drifted out of a Lifetime movie with Lindsay Wagner. In another example of the out-of-character idiocy on display, Davis’s icy sister suddenly turns maternal, cradling a sobbing Paltrow while telling her, “You didn’t kill Dad. He just died.” (This is the work of two accolade-decorated writers?)
Hopefully, Proof‘s failure will be a wake-up call to every studio executive who waits with bated breath to leap on the writer who pens that year’s Tony Award-winner for Best Play. (Which means watch your back, John Patrick Shanley.) There are a dozen ways this work could have adapted successfully with a little vision, but c’est la vie, one supposes. But they didn’t kill Proof. It just died.