Thursday, December 25, 2008

DOUBTFUL

Streep dominates but can't save rigid drama

Posted on Thu, Dec 25, 2008 at 4:00 AM

**
DOUBT
Studio: Miramax Films
Rated: PG-13
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Alice Drummond
Director: John Patrick Shanley
WorkNameSort: DOUBT
Our Rating: 2.00

The new drama Doubt is an elegiac meditation on doubt and the doubting doubters who doubt them.

If that assessment seems overly simplistic and on the nose, then consider yourself that much more cinematically sophisticated than Doubt writer-director John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck, Joe Versus the Volcano), who also wrote the play from which this film is adapted. Shanley's film opens and closes with main characters uttering the word 'doubtâ?� with varying degrees of conviction, and the story in between ' a head nun at a Catholic school suspects one of their priests of, well, you know ' is adorned with elemental clues and cues. It's as if the filmmaker believes the audience is roughly the same age as the altar boys.

Although the production design makes zero effort to set the film in 1964, we're told flat-out that it is by Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) when he asks his congregation, 'When President Kennedy died last year, who among us didn't feel lost?â?� Meryl Streep's immovable Sister Aloysius Beauvier believes in her heart that Flynn is the devil and, in the first shot of her soon-to-be war against him, vacuums a damning anecdote out of fresh-faced Sister James (Amy Adams) ' and the cat-and-mouse game is on. Along comes tone-deaf Shanley, who actually shows a cat nabbing a mouse that's gotten loose in the nunnery. As the 'evidence,â?� or rather, concerned glances, stacks up against Flynn ' whose progressive compassion and secular tolerance don't sit well with Beauvier ' windstorms 'like we've never seenâ?� throw windows open at just the right dramatic moments. When Beauvier hits her righteous stride, the wind takes down a tree branch, injuring an elderly nun.

There is no pivotal action in Doubt that Shanley doesn't spell out with every letter. The performances are flawless exercises for his Oscar-shined cast, but Shanley's clunky blocking, static movements and complete distrust of his audience doom an otherwise fine story to theatrical purgatory.

Shanley wants us to consider the racial and social implications behind Beauvier's suspicions because the altar boy in question is the church's first black student and Flynn is kind of a hippie, but Streep, possibly sensing that Shanley's screenplay isn't the right tool for that job, subverts his intentions by endowing Beauvier with a world of history behind her eyes.

When her head-smacking, whip-cracking dragon lady is introduced, we think we've seen this character a million times in movies from The Sound of Music to The Magdalene Sisters.

But Beauvier truly believes Flynn is a monster underneath it all, and it's worth noting that she looks him dead in the eye and never blinks or wavers. She wants to break him, even if it means, as she puts it, 'stepping away from God.â?� Even if her suspicions are horribly inaccurate, which the film doesn't answer easily, Streep proves her an undeniable force and, if she's right, an utter hero.

I haven't seen that before.

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