The story is in the telling, so they say. Writer-director Matthew Brown sets out with the arresting true story of extraordinary mathematician Srinavasa Ramanujan but tells it in a milquetoast manner: "The Man Who Knew Infinity" can repeat its formula by rote, but develops no breakthrough theory of its own.
Oddly, writer-director Brown hasn't made a film since his obscure debut 15 years ago with "Ropewalk," an ensemble romantic comedy set in Nantucket. And yet here he is, with Ramanujan's story based on Robert Kanigel's bio "The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan" -- a bona fide cast, and production values to rival the likes of this picture's most obvious precursor, "The Theory of Everything." The pinch-me situation doesn't quite rise to that of Ramanujan himself, an autodidact whose persistence won him a passage from East Indian obscurity to the University of Cambridge in 1913.
Dev Patel plays Ramanujan with the same gaping earnestness and amusing eagerness that long ago became his stock in trade, and the actor thus deserves some credit for "Infinity's" lack of imagination in conceiving Ramanujan as a character.
In his hometown of Madras, India, Ramanujan woos and wins a bride, Janaki (Devika Bhise), then wriggles away from both her and his doubting Brahmin family when he earns admittance to Cambridge's Trinity College and meets his mentor, G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons). Ramanujan's raw talent for mathematical theory befuddles and frustrates the Cambridge dons, most of whom dismiss his work out of sheer racism or the more practical matter of Ramanujan's habit of not showing his work in proofs.
It's up to Hardy to drive forward Ramanujan's work, assimilating him without blotting his genius and proving to the mathematical world that Ramanujan is one for the ages. In the process, Ramanujan, Hardy and the professor's confidant, John Edensor Littlewood (Toby Jones), become friends and conspirators with common interests and goals.
But wouldn't you know it? Their drive to "publish or perish" begins to look a lot more like "publish and perish" as the Great War borrows Littlewood, and Ramanujan, who is barely past 30, develops a telltale cough.
"The Man Who Knew Infinity" sturdily synopsizes the key points of Ramanujan's life while focusing on a classic, unlikely friendship. Ramanujan's faith proffers an obvious mystical contrast to Hardy's avowed atheism. The spirit andoh, let's just say it"beautiful mind" of the former wear down the stodgy defenses of the latter. It's here that Brown invests all his drama. By reducing the two men to familiar archetypes, however, Brown must rely on Irons' nuance and Patel's lack thereof to fill in what's not on the page and struggle to make what is on the page (lines like "There are no proofs that can determine the outcome of matters of the heart") sound like human speech.
The truths of this true story were undoubtedly more complicated.
The meeting of these minds and souls and a deeper dive into the mathematics themselves, might have been considerably more interesting than the dully inspirational "The Man Who Knew Infinity." It's a pity Brown can neither literally nor figuratively "show the work."
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and smoking. One hour, 48 minutes.