While hardly the most imaginatively conceived movie about a supergenius to see release in recent years, The Man Who Knew Infinity is an excellent example of counterprogramming. We've officially entered the season of the superhero. What could possibly be less Marvelous than the story of a poor Indian math prodigy who travels 6,000 miles to study under some of the field's preeminent stuffed shirts at Trinity College?
Written and directed by Matthew Brown (Ropewalk), the biopic has a noble enough goal: introducing us to the life and work of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a largely self-taught giant of abstract mathematics little known beyond his native country's borders. Where Brown falters is in coming up with a way to convey the substance and significance of his subject's work — as the makers of The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, for example, did so effectively.
For the first half of the film, we root for Ramanujan to get the recognition he deserves. Born in the late 19th century to a working-class family in Madras, he's consumed by the study of numbers — reading everything he can get his hands on, quickly outgrowing teachers, filling notebooks with advanced theorems and equations and flunking out of college. Twice. (The film skips that part.) It's impossible not to hope someone this special will realize his dreams.
We also root for him because he's played by Dev Patel, and few young actors are more instantly likable. With his charisma, Patel could star in The Bashar al-Assad Story and leave audiences feeling like the genocidal maniac is merely misunderstood. So he gets us behind Ramanujan effortlessly.
When the young mathematician sends samples of his work to a handful of brainiacs at Trinity — then the math-geek capital of the world — he's ecstatic to receive a reply. Jeremy Irons costars as G.H. Hardy, an eccentric atheist professor who immediately recognizes the originality of Ramanujan's formulations and invites him to pursue his studies at the hallowed institution. For the young man, it's everything he's ever dreamed of. And, ultimately, less.
Once there, Ramanujan is forced to contend with bigotry. The strict vegetarian's health declines owing to deficiencies in his diet. He grows increasingly impatient as Hardy pooh-poohs his ambition to publish and insists that Ramanujan focus instead on doing proofs for his theorems, a task the latter considers unnecessary because he believes his insights are divinely inspired.
"An equation has no meaning to me," Ramanujan tells Hardy, "unless it expresses a thought of God." A beautiful sentiment from a young man with a beautiful mind. And it beats the hell out of the script's only other crack at explaining his work: "It's like a painting, only imagine it with colors you cannot see." Not helpful, really.
And that's why the film's second half proves frustrating. Fine writing and acting aside, what's the point of seeing a movie about a supergenius if no attempt is made to clarify the nature of his achievements? Nobody would've walked out of Love & Mercy satisfied if they hadn't heard Brian Wilson's music. Why should anyone who sees Infinity feel they have a clue why its story matters? Its creators evidently considered the audience incapable of grasping the beauty of continued fractions, theta functions or infinite series.
But the filmmakers had a duty to make their subject's breakthroughs appreciable to the viewer, to put them in perspective. Without that, the film adds up to little more than a by-the-numbers bromance. Both Ramanujan and the viewer deserve better.
Note: Due to a last-minute distribution shift, The Man Who Knew Infinity will start at the Savoy Theater on June 10, rather than May 13 as originally announced.