starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis
screenplay by David Auburn and Rebecca Miller, based on the play by Auburn
directed by John Madden
AN UNFINISHED LIFE
starring Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Josh Lucas
screenplay by Mark Spragg & Virginia Korus Spragg
directed by Lasse Hallstrom
by Walter Chaw Gwyneth Paltrow sops through nearly every frame of John Madden's Proof with the sturdy dedication of a Method actress swallowed whole by a red-rimmed wet blanket. It's not a performance so much as a dip into her own navel, which, while not the worst fate I can imagine, is certainly not very interesting to watch. I find that contemporary American arthouse fare, thrilled to sift its way to the bottom of a mystic grain silo in a stately, lachrymose manner where the corn is alien, bears no relationship to any reality I've ever known--its sole purpose, at least to the extent that I can glean, to vet some collective desire to win the Good Will Hunting/A Beautiful Mind lottery by pretending to be really good at math (a fine excuse, after all, for being barmy).
It's a solipsistic way to avoid responsibility and, to the extent that that's supportable, to escape reality, meaning films like Proof and An Unfinished Life (both weighted with enough Oscar gold to choke a Weinstein) are full of grandstanding old has-beens stalking the boards with what seems a lot like arrogance and resignation and playing off pretty young things well-practiced in their awe of these elder statesmen. None of it has thing one to do with anything that means anything to anyone outside of their peculiar universes. Bad sci-fi, documentaries made by termites and accountants, or stage/literary adaptations that reveal themselves once projected onto the big screen to be as thin and faith-reliant as a communion wafer: when the epitaph is finally inscribed on the Miramax headstone, look beneath the Oscar count for a line or two about how with a few major (i.e., Tarantino) exceptions, it was just Touchstone with a pedigree.
Proof, based on the acclaimed (and thin) Pulitzer Prize-winning David Auburn play, carefully positions Catherine (Paltrow) as the most delicate figurine in the picture's glass menagerie, a twenty-seven-year-old woman mourning the death of her once-brilliant/now-bonkers mathematician father Robert (Anthony Hopkins) whilst rattling around in a giant house on the University of Chicago's campus. Her brittle ballbreaker of a sister Claire (the increasingly insufferable brittle ballbreaker of an actress Hope Davis, in a career-worst turn) flies in on a cloud of jojoba and patrician iciness to attend a party, a funeral, and to the affairs of poor Catherine, who, it's clear to everyone, is seriously depressed and possibly crazy like her dear papa. But is Catherine as blessed with her father's mathematical ability as she is cursed by his madness? Young graduate student Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal--ubiquitous and suddenly hunky) sure thinks so, and is proven (proof-en) right after he's handed the key to a secret composition book holding the proof to some theory about prime numbers (ah, but as I don't understand it, it must be the product of Intelligent Design, thus dis-proof-ing the MacGuffin like that) that may have been written by Catherine.
So although there's a dead father, Proof isn't about grief, and although there's love in it, the film's not about love, either. It might be about loyalty, and it might be about greed and fame--but judging by how it provides its cast with showy moments amidst the sweet little oblique nothings, I'm guessing that Proof is mostly about winning awards. I'm sure that there's a power to it in the claustrophobic confines of a small West End theatre--and I'm sure that the originator of the Catherine role, Mary Louise-Parker, was fantastic in it, generating as she's capable of generating a formidable draught of sympathy and intrigue. With Paltrow and in this medium, however, Proof feels irretrievably stagebound--stilted and awkward no matter how many long, snowy drives Madden tosses in to try to "open up" the tight confines of the walnut-close dialogue and its weightless revelations. It doesn't work off the stage, just as Sunset Blvd. didn't work on the stage: There are some pieces that require the mysterious non-space of film and others that are fatally reduced by it.
Hopkins, in full-autopilot mode, is simply awful. His belly now the centre of his gravity, he shuffles around like a grizzly bear snuffling for a berry--a mean feat to play a ghost so diaphanous that it's sort of easy to forget he's there at all as the prime mover of Proof's active inaction. But not so mean a feat, apparently, that both Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman can't accomplish the same thing in Lasse Hallstrom's inert An Unfinished Life. A film that doesn't suffer from formula as much as it languishes in good company with it, An Unfinished Life pins the formerly vibrant Hallstrom to the same Miramax corkboard as John Madden (and as Kevin Smith). It has no gifts and no surprises, only a passel of quiet regrets concerning how Jennifer Lopez has sabotaged a once-promising career, how Redford's legendary lack of follow-through has finally found a grumbling, self-immolating on-screen evocation, and how Freeman has made it an extraordinarily long way playing the same chronicler/contextualizer of quirky white men--none of whom are able to live outside of the bell jar of their unlikely celluloid homes. If it works in no other way (not as entertainment, certainly), An Unfinished Life is a remarkably clear summary of the terminus station of everyone involved from the Weinsteins on down.
Jean (Lopez) was married to Einar's (Redford) son. She killed him in a car accident that was probably not her fault but for which Einar blames her anyway. His anger mixes with his grief in such a way as to destroy his livelihood and his own marriage, with his pal Mitch (Freeman, naturally)--who, having been mauled by a bear, is in constant need of physical care--serving as the metaphor for his angst, although Mitch's spirit is free where Einar's is not. Inevitably, Jean runs from an abusive boyfriend, Gary (Damian Lewis), with her daughter Griff (Becca Gardner) in tow to the platonic mantation inhabited by Einar and Mitch, seeking salvation with these salts of the earth. Inevitably, she finds it as surely as Gary finds them as surely as she finds new love in the boytoy umbrella of Sheriff Curtis (Josh Lucas).
Hallstrom shoots a pretty picture yet, as in his The Shipping News, has no clear thoughts on what to do with all that beautiful landscape, and so he resorts to filling it up with the likes of Kevin Spacey, then encourages them to try on accents that don't fit very well and mumble into their chins. An Unfinished Life contains several scenes of people talking around mouthfuls of air to graves and bears; in the wake of one particularly mawkish monologue, you half expect Redford to come up triumphantly with a handful of bellybutton lint. No stone goes unturned, no sentiment un-Dr. Phil'd, and, in case there's a coma patient in the audience who didn't get the nuances of how this grizzled old cowpoke learned to love and forgive through the twin, the tender ministrations of that old bear, and his young granddaughter (and his thankless ol' pal, who, as reliably as a gym rat or a fellow-convict, gives him a homey, southern-fried shot to the chaps at the right moment), there's a long discussion of everything tying up into a neat, antique bow. Like any old studio and any old studio bosses (Mayer, Selznick), Miramax and the Weinsteins, at the end of their run, empty out their gilded stables into the most mundane of melodramatic trifles that are about the gala Movietone premieres and little else. I'm most surprised, I guess, that Kevin Costner didn't star and direct this thing--it's so earnest, so clueless. But An Unfinished Life, more than the bushel of other Miramax dumps, speaks clear and forlorn to how a company that backed Pulp Fiction could one day also back Cold Mountain. Originally published: September 20, 2005.