Proof

Proof

Proof is adapted from a play, and it’s got some rough spots here and there that indicate a less than perfect transition. It’s nowhere near as obviously a filmed play as, say, Robert Altman’s Streamers, but there are a few lines of stilted dialogue, a few moments (mostly involving the sister of the main character) of awkwardness where it very much sounds like stage play dialogue and not how people talk in real life.

A 27 year old woman is coping with the recent death of her father. Her father was a world-renowned mathematician who gradually went insane. She cared for him the last several years of his life. She had shown some ability at math herself but had dropped out of college when he needed her full time. Her older sister couldn’t handle the situation and moved to New York to get on with her life.

Rather than feeling noble about the care she provided, or feeling like it benefited her (like Diane Keaton’s character in Marvin’s Room), she experienced the whole thing as draining and traumatic. What troubles her most is that she has had some symptoms indicating that maybe she’s not all there mentally herself, and she’s frightened that she could already have taken the first steps toward the madness that destroyed her brilliant father.

One of her father’s graduate students is going through her father’s papers now that he’s dead, all or most of which consist of graphomanic nonsense. But he needs to see if there’s possibly anything of mathematical importance in there. She resents his presence at first, mostly because she’s in a bitchy, fearful place in her life where she resents pretty much anyone and anything, but they end up tentatively starting a romance.

Meanwhile her condescending sister swoops back into town for the funeral, and to check on her possibly insane sister and take over her life as much as is called for. The main character is even more resentful of her sister than of anyone else (understandably, since she does have a decidedly annoying personality).

Actually the sisterly dynamics are quite similar to those of Paper Covers Rock, with one sister who is insufferably responsible, organized, and proper, who always says whatever phony thing she thinks she’s supposed to say, and who speaks to her sibling in an exaggeratedly patient, condescending manner, and one sister who is borderline functional and borderline sane, who’s inclined to speak frankly if she speaks at all.

Then the protagonist surprises the others by revealing that there is indeed something important in her father’s papers. It’s an astonishing mathematical proof of historic importance. But the bigger surprise is that she claims she did it, even though it’s in his handwriting and he’s one of the very few people in history considered intellectually capable of something like this.

The others are understandably skeptical. So the question becomes, did she inherit her father’s insanity (because she certainly seems sincere in what she’s claiming) or his extraordinary mathematical genius?

Proof is a modest film, unspectacular, somewhat interesting, mostly competent.

My main problem with it—and this doesn’t make it a bad film—is that one of its messages seems to be that it’s insulting to be skeptical when someone claims something, or to seek some kind of confirmation of it.

The graduate student takes the paper to be examined by experts to determine its value and its likely author. The protagonist lets him know that it’s irrelevant what he discovers, because the key thing is he betrayed her by not believing her without proof. She says her sister is a lost cause and she knew she’d be skeptical, but she hoped he’d be different, that they had a special connection. He acknowledges that of course she’s right, that one should never doubt someone one truly cares for.

Since it’s agreed to by both main characters I assume that’s the message of the movie itself, but I don’t find it convincing.

I could understand if it were something solely personal, like a person deciding not to investigate, not to doubt, when his partner says she didn’t cheat on him. That would be between them, and maybe he’d decide it’s best just to show trust.

But that’s not the situation here. This is a document of public importance. You don’t make a decision about something like that on the basis of “I really like this person; I want to have the kind of relationship with her where we trust each other and don’t look to verify things.” There’s a duty of due diligence, especially in a case where the circumstantial evidence is strongly against her.

Not to mention their big “connection” is that they slept together once, and may be at the very, very early stages of dating.

But perhaps most important, there’s evidence that she’s nuts. So it’s not a matter of not trusting her in the sense of thinking she’s lying. Even if she didn’t write the math paper, she likely sincerely thinks she did. So it’s a matter of—justifiably—suspecting a possible delusion, not so much a possible lie.

Not that it’s the most flattering thing for your boyfriend to be open-minded about your possibly being crazy, but it’s not the same kind of lack of trust as it would be if he were keeping open the possibility that you’re lying.

Heck, I don’t think she herself is a hundred percent sure she wrote it. She has serious concerns about her own sanity. That’s one of the main elements of the movie; that’s what has her so out of sorts. So it’s hardly fair for her to fault others for also having doubts about her.

Proof is a decent film. I cared about the story and the characters at least to some extent the whole way and was never significantly disappointed in how things played out. But I don’t think it’s one that will particularly stick with me.

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