Proof takes moviegoers not into a whirlpool of mental illness seemingly brought about by genius, but rather into the crevasses that so often form in the middle of relationships. Featured is a bond between a father (Robert) and his daughter (Catherine). Intimate attention is also given to the sibling status of two sisters (Catherine and Claire). A liaison between lovers (Catherine and Hal). And the intersections of life and death, love and loss, skepticism and faith, math and emotion.
Catherine just lost her dad. Robert was a spectacular mathematician, a giant among his peers and a near legend among his students and fans. He was also a tender and loving father upon whom Catherine lavished all of her attention and care after his great mind stopped functioning properly. So when he dies, she's left empty, cold and on the brink of following in his footsteps toward mental illness.
That's when Hal shows up, eager to go through Robert's notebooks. He's hoping Robert unearthed one more mathematical gem before he expired, a glittering proof waiting to be shared with the world. Instead he finds a father's written expression of love and respect for his daughter. He also finds that that daughter, Catherine, is irresistible, and the two fall in love. Meanwhile, Catherine's sister, Claire, flies in from New York to take charge of the situation. Any situation will do.
Catherine puts her life on hold to care for her father. In return—sometimes in her mind, sometimes in flashbacks—Robert consistently pushes his daughter forward. He gently chides her for "losing days" by staying in bed and "moping." He motivates her with kindness and with his own enthusiasm for math. "It's not about big ideas," he insists. "It's about work—chipping away at a problem."
Catherine responds to her father's guidance, and it becomes a pillar for her to lean on as her days begin to get stormy. Speaking of both math and life, she concludes, "I could try to find a shorter way. I could try to make it better."
The importance of trusting those we love comes to the fore as the story unspools. Catherine confronts Hal for doubting her at a critical moment. When Hal refuses to take her word for something (related to a proof he found) but then changes his mind when his math friends confirm what she originally said, Catherine informs him, "It's just evidence; it doesn't prove anything. You should have trusted me!"
Catherine and Claire also get into some pretty big fights, but while you're predisposed to dislike Claire's instinct to control everyone around her, you come to realize that she still cares about her family and tries to help her little sister the best way she knows how—even though she doesn't know how very well.
Robert says that when his brain is really working well, he feels inspired, but clarifies that there's nothing divine about the revelations he translates to paper.
Hal jokes that his "math geek" friends must not be too geeky since they were "getting laid." Catherine takes off her shirt for the camera a couple of times, showing her bra. Similarly, while having sex with Hal, she's seen with her dress off. The camera looks away for a bit, then comes back to the "action" just as the two are concluding their romp—just in time to catch a little sexual motion and then a lot of Catherine's subsequent tears as she's overwhelmed by the love she feels for Hal and the grief she feels after losing her dad. (They have sex the night of his funeral.)
Twice, a frustrated Catherine flails about in a home office; once she pushes a stack of notebooks off her dad's desk.
Crude or Profane Language
Jesus' name is abused a half-dozen times. God's is combined with "d--n" at least four times. There are also six or so s-words, two f-words and a smattering of milder profanities.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Catherine drinks from the bottle—alone. There's lots of drinking at Robert's wake (Hal and others appear to be drunk). It's said that some of the guys in the math crowd Hal hangs out with take amphetamines to enhance their mental game.
What is it about Hollywood and math? Do accountants actually exert so much influence these days that the artsy types make sure to give a nod to the "boring" occupations from time to time? Remember, it was a movie about math that broke open the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. And it was a movie about math that cemented Russell Crowe's superstar status.
Maybe it's because artists rarely understand math, and that makes it mysterious and, given the right script, romantic. Maybe it’s the intangible allure of math's elegance and its simultaneous simplicity and complexity. Maybe it's just that so many stories have already been told about so many subjects that math is finally taking its turn in the limelight. Whatever the reason, calculus is cool on the big screen.
The beauty of Proof, which is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, lies not so much in its setting (Chicago), its special effects (are there any?) or even its dialogue. It lies in the weightiness of what's going on between the lines and behind the eyes. And, amazingly, it lies in the way the story's timeline gets all mashed up. Usually when that happens, moviegoers get lost. Here, it's energizing and once you're hooked, you won't miss a beat.
As that timeline tumbles over and into itself, it becomes apparent that Proof is both miserable and hopeful. Reeling from her dad's death, Catherine blasts mourners at his funeral, saying, "Where have you been for the past five years?!" She recounts the torment she went though as she cared for him during his failing years and then concludes by blurting, "I'm glad he's dead." She isn't. She's terrified of going on without him. And she's frightened she'll be just like him.
That's when hope comes to the rescue. "Maybe I'll be like my dad," Catherine says to Hal. "Maybe you'll be better," he replies. In another scene Catherine wants to know, "What's a great man without his greatness?" The film's answer: Still a great man.
Movies best serve their audiences not when they make them laugh or cry or scare them out of their wits. They best serve their audiences when they force them to grapple with life. And on those terms, Proof should win the Fields Medal. As for how it deals with sexual morality and profane language, however, it shouldn't even get nominated.