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THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY

Misunderstood, mistreated geniuses are a cinematic staple, and the life of yet another of them is dramatized in “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” a Masterpiece Theatre-style treatment of the relationship between Srinavasa Ramanujan, the tragically short-lived Indian math prodigy, and Cambridge don G.H. Hardy, who was instrumental in bringing him to England and served as his supportive mentor in the face of World War I-era racism and prejudice in British society. Though the film is hobbled by the necessity—so common in pictures of this sort—to simplify the subject’s rather esoteric accomplishments by simply having bystanders incredulously tell us how “incredible” and “amazing” they are, it works as a simple human story of the bond that builds between two drastically different men who are in a position to appreciate each other’s brilliance.

Certainly the film fails conspicuously to make much of Ramanujan’s background in India, which is sketched in a colorful but frankly bland fashion. He’s introduced as a twenty-something in pre-war Madras, impoverished but a wiz with figures—as well as newly-married to the beautiful Janaki (Devika Bhise). He’s fortunate in landing a job as a low-level clerk to an Englishman (Stephen Fry), whose chief accountant recognizes and encourages his mathematical studies. Eventually his superiors are instrumental in introducing him by letter to Hardy, who recognizes the innovative conclusions in the sample theorems he’s received from out of the blue and arranges for Ramanujan to come to Cambridge as his student, leaving Janaki behind with his bullying mother (Arundhati Nag).

In England the newcomer has trouble fitting in, especially because most of his classmates treat Indians as intellectually inferior. (The fact that the college refectory has no vegetarian options is also a problem, forcing him to cook for himself!) Hardy, an emotionally remote man, is initially no help, insisting that the young man take regular classes and concentrate on formulating proofs for his inspired conclusions. Hardy, an atheist, simply cannot fathom Ramanujan’s insistence that he intuits the mathematical truths he expounds through prayer and meditation and reads them as divine messages. The result is that Ramanujan is hounded by a contemptuous math don (Anthony Calf) and the leaders of the college, even as he falls victim to a nagging cough, the harbinger of the illness that would ultimately kill him while still in his early thirties, after he’d returned to India and Janaki (who’d been erroneously led to believe that he’d forgotten her by her mother-in-law).

Meanwhile Hardy is prodded into giving his pupil the leeway he needs by his academic friends, math colleague John Littlewood (Toby Jones) and mathematician-philosopher Betrand Russell (Jeremy Northam), whose pacifist leanings led to the loss of his Trinity fellowship in 1916. The don decides to take a chance and pit the abilities of his student regarding partitions against the laborious calculations of another doubtful colleague (Richard Johnson). When they prove to coincide, the powers-that-be will be forced to recognize, however belatedly, Ramanujan’s accomplishments in number theory even as his health deteriorates.

Frankly writer-director Matthew Brown isn’t able to make those achievements comprehensible to laymen, which is what most audience members will be. The best he can do is to convey their importance to the mathematical community at Cambridge through their grudging expressions of admiration. But the emphasis of the film is on personal relationships—not just that between Ramanujan and Hardy, but that between Hardy on the one hand and Littlewood and Russell on the other. (Ramanujan’s marriage, on the other hand, gets very short shrift.) In that respect it’s fortunate in its cast. Irons in particular is splendid, painting a sharp but affectionate portrait of a man given over to his ethereal academic pursuits to the exclusion of almost all else (though, it must be said, he’s far too old to be playing Hardy, who wasn’t yet forty at the time). Jones, Northam and Johnson match him in donnish give-and-take. Patel does he can with the part of Ramanujan, who’s presented as basically a suffering saint; he certainly cuts a sympathetic figure, though not always a compelling one.

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is helped immeasurably by authentic locations, including the grounds of Trinity College, which are beautifully shot in lustrous widescreen by Larry Smith. And the period detail is captured impeccably in Luciana Arrighi’s production design, the art direction supervised by Andrew Munro and effected by Justin Warburton-Brown, Liz Ainley’s set decoration and Ann Maskrey’s costumes. J.C. Bond’s editing gives the material the Georgian tempo it demands, and Coby Brown’s score is appropriately genteel.

Those more accomplished in mathematics than most of us would doubtlessly applaud a treatment with more disciplinary meat to it, but among examples of this popular genre Brown’s film falls precisely at the middlebrow level that makes it accessible and, on that basis, entertaining.

THE FAMILY FANG

In his sophomore directing effort, Jason Bateman again opts for a script that begins as authentically dark comedy but eventually winds its way to a conventionally upbeat ending—and includes a plum part perfectly suited to his own mixture of snarkiness and vulnerability. Like “Bad Words,” “The Family Fang”—adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from the well-received novel by Kevin Wilson—goes a mite soft at the close, but along the way it’s a mostly bracing tale of how the eccentricities of parents can affect their children.

The couple in question are Caleb and Camille Fang, played in flashbacks to an earlier time by Jason Butler Harner and Kathryn Hahn and in the present by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett. The pair are a team of guerilla performance artists, who have built a career of sorts by staging public scenes designed to involve unsuspecting observers and record their outraged reactions. When the Fangs have kids—Annie (first Mackenzie Brooke Smith, then Taylor Rose) and Baxter (first Jack McCarthy, then Kyle Donnery)—they include them in the act, and the emotional scars are apparent now: Annie (Nicole Kidman) is an actress whose career in crumbling, and Baxter a novelist whose struggles with a third book—after a stellar debut and a disappointing follow-up—have forced him to take on embarrassing freelance work, like covering a bunch of vets who amuse themselves shooting off super-powered potato guns.

It’s that assignment that lands Baxter in the hospital with a head wound, leading the staff to summon his long-estranged parents to take him home. When he enlists Annie to come back east to give him support during his stay at their place, it gives Caleb the chance to excoriate both his children for their failed artistry while extolling his own. Meanwhile Camille, clearly the follower of the two (an enabler, to be more precise), aims to keep the peace as much as possible, even after Caleb, desperate to revive the old magic, enlists the siblings in a goofy fake-coupon bit that falls flat—an outcome for which he blames them.

That leads to the crux of the plot: Caleb and Camille go off on a road trip, leaving Annie and Baxter behind, only to wind up missing, possible victims of a rest stop killer. Annie is certain that it’s just one more publicity scam designed to resuscitate their fame, while Baxter isn’t so sure. As brother and sister wend their way through past and present—eventually winding up at the estate of Caleb’s college mentor Hobart (Harris Yulin) for answers—they confront the truth but more importantly learn to leave their old traumas behind and embrace the future liberated. (Precisely how is up to the viewer to find out.)

The theme of Wilson’s book—the toll that parents’ obsessions can take on their hapless children (which is delivered pointedly in Walken’s final diatribe, in which he declares that it’s virtually a father’s fate to damage his offspring, and no less in a ditty called “Kill All Parents” that practically bookends the story)—is conveyed expertly in Lindsay-Abaire’s script and Bateman’s nimble direction, which manage a good balance between the serious and the darkly comedic. Bateman and Kidman, who along with her co-star served as one of the numerous producers, offer strong, nuanced performances as the grown-up Baxter and Annie, but the throbbing heart of the picture is Walken’s quiet ferocity as true-believer Caleb, almost maniacally certain of his artistic calling. He’s abetted well by Plunkett as his over-devoted spouse, and those who play the younger versions of all four characters handle themselves well too, without attempting direct imitations. The smaller roles are also well filled, with Yulin exuding the vibe of an eccentric but loving uncle, while Linda Emond and Marin Ireland make strong impressions as women who impact the Fangs in very different ways. There’s also a delicious insert in which Scott Shepherd and Steve Witting appear as dueling art critics assessing the quality—or lack thereof—in Caleb’s output.

On the technical side one can appreciate Beth Mickle’s convincing production design and Ken Seng’s ably unostentatious widescreen cinematography, which is nicely juxtaposed with the grittier flashbacks by editor Robert Frazen. But perhaps the most memorable craft contribution comes from Carter Burwell’s gossamer score, which integrates bits of Beethoven at crucial moments.

Though it ends on a hopeful note, “The Family Fang” is by no means a feel-good portrait of family life: the acidic, abrasive undercurrent remains to the end. While it centers on a family weirder than most, though, it’s a surprisingly biting—and enjoyable—rejoinder to the bland Waltons Mountain portrait of parents and children that movies and television so often paint.