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'Proof's the Magic Director

September 15, 2005 By:
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"Mrs. Brown," you had a lovely director.

And the same goes for you, too, "Proof."

John Madden is proof-positive that a director who doesn't paint by the numbers can create the most illustrative portraiture - which he did in "Mrs. Brown," "Shakespeare in Love," and now, again, in the filmed adaptation of David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a mathematical love triangle made up of a daughter, father and the madness of genius, in which not all angles are equal.

"Proof" opens in the region on Friday, Sept. 16.

It is an autumnal treat this late-in-life saga of a senescent father (Anthony Hopkins) whose circle of life is complicated by the geometrics of aging and illness. As his life yields to dementia in an equation of inequities, his daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) caters to him, serving as the catalyst hoping to save him from himself - all the while wondering if she has inherited his madness as well as his mathematical prowess.

On bringing the Broadway drama to the screen, Madden has done the unimaginable; he has literally improved upon "Proof" the play - adding to rather than subtracting from the work, whose English version he also directed with Paltrow as star.

But then Madden has a way with unusual families - harking back to his days directing Jules Feiffer's "Grown Ups" on Broadway and on Showtime. There it was a Jewish family that did a number on itself with constant kvetching and carping.

"In a way," explains Madden, "both 'Grown Ups' and 'Proof' are about intensely complicated family relationships."

Of course, one is more concerned with kugel than calculus. "But they both have a similar tone; great anguish spills over into absurdity and laughter. Both pieces are really so familiar."

Baking an apple pie, stewing over Pi … "Misunderstandings seem endemic to both - which is hilarious to watch and quite savage to experience."

This most genteel of gentlemen has an eye for the storm of family feuds, whether it be the prettified "Proof," the garish "Grown Ups" with its Borscht Belt beat, or the wickedly wayward "Wings," which he staged at the National Theater in England.

Matters of the Movie Heart
"Shakespeare in Love" took home the Oscar for best picture, but it is the shaken heroes of love's labors lost of his other works that have made Madden the expert in matters of the movie heart.

Indeed, there's no formula for dealing with the human heart. Proof? Watch Madden the man at work.

Just don't ask him why the sum of all parts - those he directs - is greater than the whole of so many other directors.

His equation for excellence? Can't be quantified in a world of quirks and quarks. But talk of trigonometry does trigger an immediate response, offering a sign or two of his feelings for the way numbers work as a whole. "I find math very intriguing, but I never pursued it in school."

He pursues it now instead on screen, where "my taste for the mysteries of numbers" is scripted in smart dialogue by playwright Auburn, abetted by writer Rebecca Miller (whose own father, the late great Arthur Miller, knew a thing or two about making whole numbers out of misfits and fractious characters.)

At a time when the craze of Sudoku - a Japanese-based mathematical game puzzle - is growing in America exponentially, Madden's mathematical movie venture may just add to the field's sudden "sexiness."

Are prime numbers ready for prime time? Is math a modern-day maneuver to divide and conquer the curious?

"Maybe it's about time people have a taste for the mystery of math," says the director. "Math is a transcendent world; the idea of infinity is tantalizing."

Indeed, it is easy to go on and on on how nothing is for certain - including certainty. "Two and two equals four," reasons Madden.

"Except, of course," he adds with a smile, "under certain circumstances when it isn't."

 

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