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‘Proof’ is one of Paltrow’s best

Chemistry among the stars and a compelling story makes this a film to see. By John Hartl

The last time Gwyneth Paltrow and director John Madden worked together, Paltrow won an Academy Award for best actress — and their collaboration, “Shakespeare in Love,” won the Oscar for best picture of 1998.

Things haven’t been quite so rosy for either of them since then (Madden took a dive with “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” while Paltrow slogged through “Duets” and “Shallow Hal”), but in “Proof” they get to demonstrate once more how good they are for each other.

Based on David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 play, which Paltrow performed in London’s West End, it’s the story of a brilliant but unhinged Chicago mathematician, Robert (Anthony Hopkins), and his gifted and equally tormented daughter, Catherine (Paltrow). He’s gone mildly mad, convinced that aliens are speaking to him through the Dewey Decimal System, and she gives up much of her youth taking care of him as he approaches dementia and death.

As the movie opens, Robert is already dead, though this isn’t immediately apparent because their relationship has been so close. The night before the funeral, Catherine and Robert (or his memory or his ghost) carry on conversations as if he were still alive and functioning. She fears that she may inherit his mental illness and, for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, she can’t let him go.

Meanwhile, an ambitious math student, Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal), is going through Robert’s messy papers, looking for a breakthrough that will help him to “write his ticket” in the profession. At the same time, Catherine’s controlling sister, Claire (Hope Davis), is trying to organize Catherine’s life. She sells her house, packs her belongings and not-so-gently suggests that she seek professional help in New York.

On stage, Auburn’s play was provocative and witty, with a twisty, gasp-inducing curtain line for Act One that made you want to skip the intermission and move immediately ahead to Act Two. Naturally the movie doesn’t stop for that kind of breather (though it does make dramatic use of that curtain line), and the result is storytelling that has considerably more urgency and momentum.

Particularly in the second half, the characters come alive with possibilities. Catherine and Hal, who share a devotion to her father and his work, inevitably find themselves attracted to each other. Yet their budding relationship depends on complete trust, which neither of them can quite deliver at this point in their lives.

Although the script (by Auburn and Rebecca Miller) throws around some daunting technical terms, it’s less about mathematics than it is about the problems of living in the shadow of a genius, coming to terms with the extinction of that very special mind, breaking free and establishing a future of one’s own. Madden’s direction is unobtrusive, sensitive and always in service of the actors.

Thanks to Davis’ tragicomic obliviousness, the chemistry between Paltrow and Gyllenhaal, and Hopkins’ frequently heartbreaking performance as a once-brilliant man who has evidently misplaced his mind, “Proof” is likely to move you even if you flunked eighth-grade algebra.