Sunday, February 15, 2009

Film Review: Doubt

Doubt is a film that should have remained on the stage. It is not a terrible film, merely a competent one, and the move from stage to screen does nothing for the story. I remember seeing the play on Broadway three years ago, and Cherry Jones and Brian O’Byrne brought an immediacy to the story that manifested itself in writer John Patrick Shanley words, and the sparse stage setting created a starkness that did well to control the inherent melodrama. Unfortunately, the film adaptation does no such thing, and the histrionics are on full display when you have heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman going head to habit (too easy . . . still terrible). The setting and situations remain the same, but nearly every altercation erupts into a shouting match captured up close, whereas the theatrical experience allowed a distance that was necessary for the story’s ambiguity. The reaping of acting awards bestowed upon the film’s actors, including Amy Adams as an earnest, easily swayed nun and Viola Davis as the mother of the boy at the crux of the film’s title, are unsurprising. The academy loves this kind of emotional hijacking. Too bad none of them are deserving; Hoffman acquits himself well, but he’s done better, and Streep and Adams seem to be phoning in from some other atmosphere. Adams especially comes across as a petulant, gullible child who cannot arose an ounce of authentic thought, and she portrays the teacher as puppetry rather than an adult grappling with a morally complex issue. Shove a stick up her ass and she’ll speak. One of the many absurd nominations made by the Academy, but I digress.

Which is not to state that the film should not be viewed, only that I believe a filmed stage adaptation would have more than done justice. As a writer, Shanley created a powerful story focused on his title’s topic, a palpable one since the issue exists within the well being of every individual. I’m a firm believer that everyone suffers from doubt’s afflictions, no matter how determined a person may be to hold onto his/her beliefs nor how certain a person may be in voicing/expressing a belief system. Even the most fervent, religious-crazed zealot must have expressed doubt, internally or externally, at some point. It is inescapable, and it can creep into a life at any moment. Using the religious terrain of a 1960s Catholic school as his battleground, Shanley uses his topic to delve into child molestation, religious persecution, racial segregation/integration, and homosexuality, but he does so without wielding a Louisville Slugger to pound out his proclamations. Indeed, much of the story hinges on one’s own doubt; I’m not absolutely sure if Father Flynn sexually abused the school’s only African-American boy, Donald, although I tend to believe he did not. I’m also not sure what Sister Aloysius doubts at the end of the film: the lie she tells in order to have Father Flynn removed, her single-mindedness in attacking Father Flynn, or her own religious beliefs

The ambiguity is the film’s strong-point, but as a director, Shanley is all canted camera angles meant to visualize a world askew; all torrential downpours reflecting the shitstorm pouring forth inside; and all burned-out lightbulbs bursting to illustrate the moral black hole the characters find themselves sucked into, guided by their certainty. If anything, I would have liked to have seen what another director could have done with this film (Lars Von Trier comes to mind for some reason).

I guess I’m just underwhelmed by the whole film. It left no real impression as a movie; as a play, that’s another story. I hope Shanley goes back to the theater, and I wish the actors all the best. I’ll be happy to see them risk more than a film adaptation of a pedigreed play, where they know full well they’ll get their professional accolades. Hoffman, go back to your Synedoche, New York’s and your Before the Devil Knows Your Dead (a terrifically raw and under appreciated performance). Adams, I appreciated you trying to diversify your filmography so you won’t be pigeonholed as one of those “lovable, adorable leading ladies” who always seem to end up on women’s magazine covers, but go after something edgier. And Meryl Streep, please don’t appear in any more films for a while. I hate that your name steals Oscar nominations away from other, more deserving actresses such as Emily Mortimer in Transsibberian. Until then, pass on this film while it’s in theaters.

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