Infinity: Matthew Broderick’s Disappointing Directing Debut

Actor Matthew Broderick obviously feels strong emotional and intellectual affinity with Richard Feynman, the brilliant American-Jewish scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, for his directorial debut (in which he also stars), represents an original effort to capture the early life of the influential physicist.

But honorable and serious intentions do not always translate into interesting pictures, as is evident in Infinity, a stagnantly flawed movie that suffers from a weak performance by Patricia Arquette as the scientist’s grand amour and first wife.

First Look needs all the help it can get in marketing a problematic, long-in-production film that is unlikely to go much beyond the coterie of Broderick’s fans as an actor and hardcore supporters of American indies.

Most Hollywood biopics about geniuses and “great men” focus on their professional careers, usually excluding or neglecting their private and family lives. Refreshingly deviating from this format, Infinity centers almost exclusively on the romantic and marital life of a man, whom most people recognize strictly as a brilliant theoretician, who was known in his milieu as “the magician” and went on to win a Nobel Prize in l965.

Based on selective chapters from Feynman’s two volumes of memoirs (published in l985 and l988), the script by Patricia Broderick (Matthew’s mother) covers an 11-year-span (l934-l945) in the private life of an extraordinary individual. Narrated by Feynman while nostalgically looking back on his life, pic begins in New York’s Queens, in l924, with Richard’s father (Peter Riegert) lovingly and dedicatingly nurturing his son’s scientific curiosity.
The story then moves on to l934 and the fateful meeting between Richard and Arline (Arquette), a most attractive and popular girl, at a teenage party. Smitten from the first moment he saw her, a courtship begins, with the two youngsters romantically hopeful about their respective futures–he as a scientist, she as an artist. Five years later, Richard is completing his Ph.D. at Princeton, but their plans to get married are delayed for in those days, a student couldn’t get married while on scholarship.

The tender love story is suddenly challenged when Arline falls ills and is diagnosed with tuberculosis, then a highly contagious and incurable disease. Richard’s family is understandably upset, when he announces his firm decision to marry Arline, though she is clearly admired by all of them. Undeterred, he forcefully claims that their long-standing relationship is akin to marriage and a good, loyal husband wouldn’t desert his wife when she’s sick.
Richard faces an ethical dilemma, when Arline’s illness is later diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease and both families conspire to prevent the truth from her, presenting the case as glandular fever. However, when Arline accidentally overhears her mother crying, she confronts Richard and demands to know the truth, as it’s a severe violation of the honesty upon which their relationship has always been based; their motto is “what do you care what other people think,” which later became the title for Feynman’s second autobiographical volume.

The real-life, inspirational saga abounds in ironies, but, regrettably, only few have been translated to the screen in an emotionally effective manner. For example, it’s only when Richard lands a paying job with the government, working on a top-secret project, that he’s able to marry and support Arline. And after the wedding ceremony, Richard Kisses his bride on the cheek, as it was too dangerous to kiss her on the lips. But the movie never really shows how the couple dealt with this major constraint, how they sublimated or suppressed their sexual drives, apparently without weakening their intimate bond.

An even greater irony stemmed from the gap between Richard’s degree of control over his personal and occupational lives. Richard was a rational empiricist who challenged conventional wisdom and probed the complexities of atomic physics. It must have been inordinately frustrating and painful for him to accept his wife’s illness as something that was beyond his understanding and control–and beyond the limits of scientific research.

Since the story is basically an intimate chamber piece for two, it calls for two great actors and for a director with a firm grasp over the deceptively simple but quite demanding material. But, alas, Infinity misses on both counts. Registering more credibly in the first part of the film, when she plays an adolescent, Arquette’s portrayal as an adult lacks nuance and shading. In the later sequences, which she spends in or around bed, her acting get progressively monotonous; the part calls for an actress of the caliber of a young Meryl Streep or Jessica Lange.

Broderick is also not perfectly cast. Though right in age for Richard, Broderick’s natural boyish charm is more suitable for the courtship and studental years, but is somewhat of an obstacle for the mature years of a scientist, who was apparently always aware of the dangerous ramifications and moral issues involved in working on the Manhattan Project.

Shortcomings in the acting department could have been forgiven if the movie was directed in a more precise and sensitive manner, but it is not. Either out of reverential respect for the real-life characters or out of lack of technique, Broderick’s helming is too restrained and low-key, resulting in a static, old-fashioned film that only intermittently involves the viewers in the grand emotional drama unfolding onscreen.

Tech credits are humble as befits the modest, small-scale production, though film could easily lose 20 minutes of its excessive running time without sacrificing at all its integrity.