In contrast with the current generation of method performers, Anthony Hopkins has never been that naturalistic an actor, which leaves his most memorable turns—Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs, an emotionally reserved butler in The Remains Of The Day—to benefit from his stuffy theatricality. But the years have not been kind to Hopkins, whose seeming disinterest in the particulars of character work have turned him into a ham, something closer to late-period Rod Steiger or every-period Donald Pleasence than one of the world's most revered actors. Hopkins' increasing disconnection with his fellow actors and the material nearly sabotages Proof, an otherwise-respectable adaptation of David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. As if the film needed a glaring reminder of its stage roots, Hopkins' turn as a recently deceased mathematician who imparts a troubled legacy to his daughter seems pitched to some invisible audience in the rafters, not to the actress right in front of him.
In fact, virtually all of Proof's lead roles could stand to be recast except for the one played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who overcomes her occasional patrician chilliness and locates the raw center of an emotionally unstable character. Proof opens with Paltrow conversing with her father; only later does the audience discover that he's dead, and his words are haunting her fragile conscience. Hopkins was a brilliant mathematician, but his active mind descended into madness in his later years, and Paltrow was left with the burden of looking after him. During the week of the funeral, Paltrow's superficially concerned sister Hope Davis angles to sell the house from under her, as graduate student Jake Gyllenhaal rifles through Hopkins' old notebooks in search of some precious moments of lucidity. When Paltrow falls for the charming Gyllenhaal, she gives him the key to a desk drawer that contains a potentially groundbreaking proof on prime numbers, but there's some question over the proof's real author.
Though Auburn's play predates A Beautiful Mind by a year, comparisons between the two are unavoidable and overwhelmingly favorable to Auburn, who pinpoints the razor's edge between genius and madness, and the isolation that comes with thinking on a different plane from everyone else. Reprising her role on London's West End—the original production starred Mary-Louise Parker—Paltrow has rarely seemed so brittle and exposed as a young woman who simultaneously grapples with grief, love, and the spinning of her own mental cobwebs. Miramax house director John Madden (Shakespeare In Love) stages the action with a minimum of imagination and gets a career-worst performance out of Davis in a key role, but the material still sputters to life on the strength of the writing and Paltrow's commitment to the part. For those who missed Proof on the stage, this one will have to do.