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Physics of Fate

Matthew Broderick & Patricia Arquette
A Very Fine Man and Woman: Physicist Richard Feynman (Matthew Broderick) struggles with work and his invalid wife (Patricia Arquette) in "Infinity."

Feynman bio-pic refuses to melt down in pathos

By Richard von Busack

AN HONORABLE movie about either the 1940s or dying young is a rarity, and the restrained direction of Infinity shows a respect for the audience that's rare in cinematic high tragedy. The film has a refreshing distance that makes it rather pure and cool, even at the risk of appearing cold.

Matthew Broderick, directing himself for the first time, shows a Henry Fonda streak that's never manifested itself before, an obstinate core under a generous layer of politeness. Broderick is old for a perennial juvenile; if Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion is right, he's actually past 40, hard as that fact is to reconcile with his still very youthful image.

Infinity is adapted with commendable fidelity from the two published memoirs of physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman by screenwriter Patricia Broderick, Matthew's mother. The movie concerns Feynman's doomed first wife, Arline (Patricia Arquette), who suffered from a long, lingering illness while Feynman worked as a low-level number cruncher for the Manhattan Project.

Feynman (Broderick) encounters Arline at about age 17, courting her while he is a graduate student at Princeton. She sickens and is diagnosed with tuberculosis, but he marries her, despite the advice of his relatives. In the second half of the film, she's transferred to a hospital in New Mexico, where Feynman visits her during his time at Los Alamos helping to create the atomic bomb.

The story isn't buried under nostalgia; it gives the sense that even educated people were a bit more arrogant and abrasive in the prewar days. It also reminds us how premarital sex was carried out when Bob Dole was young. Feynman has a cocky streak that could possibly rub you the wrong way; you have no doubt that he was a man who didn't suffer fools gladly. Similarly, Arquette is painstaking not to make her character a protofeminist or an angel in training.

The script gives some too-heavy underscoring of a symbolic unaffordable dress in a window, which spoils the poignancy of bringing it back for an emotional sting. And once in a while, Broderick the director doesn't hit all of the right beats, as in an out-of-nowhere comment by a drunk physicist after the successful test of the A-bomb.

But the faulty moments are all well meant--more of Broderick's smart refusal to turn Infinity toward bathos. Both Brodericks are refreshingly unwilling to explain everything about the past to a viewer. Best of all, this is a movie that hasn't lost its faith in science. It offers an agnostic view of death and the universe that commends the healing way that work balances out the loss of romantic love.

In some scenes in Native American ruins, Infinity suggests a movie that doesn't sorrow for a woman dying young--or for the lost innocence of America--but for the rest of the race, facing our own possible annihilation the post-atomic age. As Einstein said, it is an age where everything has changed except for our way of thinking.

Infinity (PG; 116 min.), directed by Matthew Broderick, written by Patricia Broderick, photographed by Toyomichi Kurita and starring Broderick and Patricia Arquette.

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of Metro

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