‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’
Director:
Matt Brown
Stars: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

“The Man Who Knew Infinity” is a movie about science in which one of its most important yet obscure practitioners was not just “naturally gifted.” He was, it strongly suggests, touched by divine providence. Them’s the breaks with movies about brainiacs: Religion and the meddling of a higher power have to slip in there somewhere. And so the tale of Srinivasa Ramanujan — a strangely underknown math whiz who, a century back, was plucked from poverty in India and deposited at Cambridge — is both a tale of prejudice (partially) overcome and about a battle between faith and a cold materialistic worldview. You know, just in case anyone was made uncomfortable by someone simply being super-duper-mega-smart.

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Granted, the God business is mostly implied, not rammed down our throats. “Infinity” gets about the business of dumbing down — or, more often the case, ignoring — terms like “continued fractions” and “theta functions” while hipping viewers to a figure who should be as well-known as Einstein or John Nash. Played by Dev Patel, Ramanujan starts out as a social freak, irking family, friends and co-workers with his inhuman capacity for numbers. Once he lucks into a stint in England, he has to withstand the prejudices of an aggregation of academic snoots, who wouldn’t give a foreigner anything but archaic racial epithets.

The exception is Jeremy Irons’ G.H. Hardy, a superstar in number theory and a shy recluse who, recognizing his gifts as well as a kindred spirit, treats Ramanujan to some tough love mentoring. Their relationship supplies “Infinity” with a prickly emotional undercurrent, but it’s still adrift about how to depict genius, especially the mathematical kind. Mostly writer-director Matt Brown resorts to moldy shorthand. Patel is his usual excitable-earnest self, and we know he’s brilliant because he babbles uncontrollably or stares slackjawed at snow or, during an illness that will lead to his early death, hallucinates formulas on his arm. Even Ramanujan can’t explain his gifts. He doesn’t write down his work; he just solves problems. Soon Hardy, a stone cold atheist, wonders if there’s a more mystical theory to explain his rock star pupil.

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That’s disappointing, especially considering “Infinity”’s two most obvious predecessors — “The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game” — stuck to the science, and didn’t feel compelled to bother with divining why some people have superior intellects. Then there’s the fact that it’s a British film about old school British racism, as though it's not just trying to exorcise past sins but confine them to the past — just another film about bigotry that largely exists to flatter today’s audiences. It’s a progressive film, though also one in which Ramanujan’s arranged wife mostly exists to learn to not nag on her errant husband. It tries to follow the formula for recent science-heavy blockbusters only to botch the solution.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge