The Man Who Knew Infinity does not know infinity. It doesn’t know anything. Using a verb like “know” when using this film as the subject of your sentence does a disservice to the idea of knowledge itself. At no point does this film ever evince any belief in, or understanding of, the power and beauty of mathematics. One thing The Man Who Knew Infinity surely believes, though, is that its audience has a similar disinterest in its nominal subject. In fact, when you take the baseline level of brain cell death that occurs in 108 minutes, then exacerbate that by forcing the brain to consume content so vapid it must be at least a mild neurotoxin, The Many Who Knew Infinity may have achieved the distinction of being the first movie about math which will leave its audience knowing less about math than they did going in.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is a biopic Srinivasa Ramanujan, the legendary Indian mathematician who, in his brief and unorthodox career, made monumental contributions to the pursuit of mathematics. It is a prima facie fascinating story, though one with obvious challenges in being translated to the screen, so of course The Man Who Knew Infinity collapses it into formula so thoroughly it skips being two-dimensional and leaps straight into being one-dimensional. A film of no width or depth, it is merely featureless, stretching forward and backwards into oblivion. Actually, that’s too charitable, since that a) makes it sound like even on a meta-level it approaches something resembling an intriguing mathematical concept, when no, it definitely doesn’t. AND b) gives it too short shift to the fact that a movie that purports to be anti-racist frames its whole story of an Indian life as the flashback of an old white guy and repeatedly falls on the most exhausting of tropes.
There’s a whole scene where a stodgy British atheist argues for “rigor,” while the quasi-mystical Indian genius argues for “intuition.” This would be difficult to swallow even in the hands of filmmakers who understood and cared deeply about the complex and intertwined issues of science and culture, spirituality and the clash of thought traditions, that underlie such discussions. But, along with infinity, The Man Who Knew Infinity does not know complexity, subtlety, or discourse. It doesn’t even know how to use World War I, an epic tragedy whose senseless devastation on the grandest scale has fueled some of the great works of literature, cinema, and music of the modern era, as anything but window-dressing and a plot point.
The Man Who Knew Infinity does know the first thing about the cinematic craft, but it only knows the first thing, and definitely never met any other thing. The Man Who Knew Infinity is an unintentional and unpleasant master class in banal filmmaking, tainted only by its amateurishness, like multiple failures that correctly match on action. Its score, and its use of that score, is like being force-fed raw corn syrup. Almost all of its dialogue is expository, yet it explains nothing; the rest of its dialogue is subtext-as-text that only serves to reveal that the only meaningful subtext the film has is unintentional. Clearly made on the cheap, it has no idea how to breathe life into its handful of locations. It makes scenes with Jeremy Irons and Toby Jones dreary and boring. It makes India look dreary and boring.
I don’t know that Dev Patel is miscast as the lead. I do know that he replaced a lesser-known actually-Tamil actor who was initially cast in the title role (he even looks more like Ramanujan), so the casting of the most well-known actor, or even the most well-known person, of South Asian descent among American movie-going audiences already says a lot about the cynicism of the project. Whether Patel was up for the role is hard to know, but even the best actors often need the guidance of a good director to shape their performance to the role, and Patel does not get that here. He utterly fails to project the reserves of confidence and egoism that the character needs to have, and the show-not-tell quality of the script creates a flabbergasting conflict between the things that other characters say about the hero and the actual performance on screen. It says a lot about the Hollywood system that Patel’s best performance is still his first – the amazing, miraculous first two seasons of Skins. Maybe it’s because that’s the last time in anything prominent he was cast as a character actor first and an actor of South Asian descent second.
The most revealing thing about The Man Who Knew Infinity is when it’s being released, in May, up against what is sure to be one of the guaranteed blockbuster opening weekends of the summer. For a movie that has middlebrow awards-season bait practically stamped on its casts faces, it obviously attempts to wrestle its insipidness into the kind of straw-fed pabulum that continues to find a place in Hollywood’s political economy, despite being forgettable and mind-numbing. When this kind of banal film making gets recognized as such so that even Oscar voters won’t buy it, it usually gets buried in early fall. Releasing this in May is just a little insult cherry on top of the insult sundae of the film itself, a signal to movie going audiences that Hollywood thinks we’ll gladly guzzle this junk, but only when it’s about white people.