Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Capsule Review: Doubt

Movie: Doubt
Director/Studio: John Patrick Shanley / Miramax
10 Word Review: Tantalizing story, brilliantly acted; subpar direction keeps it from greatness.

Best Thing About It: The story. This thing didn't win the Pulitzer Prize for nothing. It's an open-ended tale of doubt versus certainty, of modernity versus the old school, and most strikingly, for me, of two roads not taken by the Catholic Church. By now, you've heard the plot: Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) comes to suspect Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) of having an inappropriate relationship with a young student (the only black student in the school). She has no evidence but she feels her certainty deeply ... and she'd just as soon be rid of Flynn's post-Vatican II ways anyway. The whole movie is a kind of ping-pong match where you go back and forth between who you believe.

But it's the complexity of their positions, of the characters themselves, that I was in love with. Sister Aloysius represents that kind of hard-line Catholic school authoritarianism that my parents' generation is always talking about, and which I experienced faint shadows of during my Catholic school years. But she's also the head nun in an institution where she has always been, and will always be, subordinate to the hierarchy of the male priesthood. We're reminded again and again that she has no real power in the parish; not when it comes to the priests. Sure, she can and does intimidate the hell out of those students, but she can't compel the monsignor to do a damn thing he doesn't want to do. She also represents a kind of dogged vigilance against the scourge of sexual abuse in the Church -- indeed, she has her nuns on the lookout for it before it even happens. Her methods are draconian and McCarthyist, absolutely, but there is no denying that if the Church had more Sister Aloysiuses in its history, it may have a lot less to apologize for today. Or maybe they'd just be apologizing for different things.

Father Flynn, on the other hand, isn't just The Accused. He also represents the modernist values that the Church tried to take on after Vatican II. There's a scene in the middle of the movie that's easy to overlook because it's buttressed up against another, even more powerful scene. But in it, a young boy's spirit is crushed by the repeated cruelties of his teachers. This is another thread that ran through the Church's history, alienating many from its ranks, and Father Flynn represents a turn away from that. But he's also a manipulator. We see that in his interactions with Amy Adams's Sister James. He plays her against Streep from the beginning, and he takes every advantage that the bishops' boys club has to offer him.

This isn't even getting into the complexities involving Sister James or Viola Davis's Mrs. Miller. I'm not going into the latter because you really have to see how it unfolds, but trust that she provokes more questions than she answers. Much like Doubt itself.

Worst Thing About It: The direction. I can only dream of what this film could have been in the hands of a more confident, seasoned director. Shanley wrote such a brilliant play, but he's not able to guide it to the screen without obvious directorial tricks, heavy-handed symbolism, showy visuals, and at least one feathery diversion that really should have been overruled by someone at some point.

Best Performance: This is a hell of a competition, much moreso than you'd expect given that it's Meryl Streep taking on a meaty, Tony-winning role. Her Sister Aloysius is a grandiose performance, sure, but it doesn't ever get away from her. There are precious few moments where the Sister's hellacious certainty cracks, and Streep is able to illuminate those moments brilliantly. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is, I think, the underrated one of this bunch. He gets shouty at times, but he's also quite delicate in the way he's constantly tipping the scales of Flynn's possible guilt from one side to another. The smallest gesture or inflection shifts the audience's entire opinion of him, and he does it about six or seven times.

Amy Adams is probably the weak link in the cast, though I'm still not sure if it's a function of her character or not. But she doesn't bring a lot beyond baseline naiveté to Sister James, and she came off as slightly cartoony on occasion. But my personal choice for best in show was Viola Davis. She absolutely as good as she's being advertised -- believe the hype. Two short scenes, but they're totally breathtaking.

Oscar Prospects: Lots and lots. Streep and Davis look locked for nominations, and I believe they'll each contend for the win. Hoffman's also looking good in the supporting category (he's a lead), and I wouldn't be shocked to see Adams follow her Globe nomination with an Oscar nod. It's on the outskirts of Best Picture, too, and expect to see Shanley's script contend in the ultra-competitive Adaped Screenplay contest.

Grade: B


JA said...

Totally agree with everything you said (except that I think Adams was just as strong as everybody else). I was so annoyed every time the camera tilted to the side for some ridiculous askew shot! Just point the camera at your brilliant words coming out of brilliant actors' mouths and stop effing it up, Shanley! Ugh.

Joe Reid said...

You know, I was tempted to write that this would have never happened under Harvey Weinstein's old Miramax regime. But Harvey likely would've rewritten the script himself and handed the project over to Lasse Hallstrom, so I'm not sure that would've helped.

Keith said...

I thought Streep was wretched here, stomping and blundering about like Godzilla preparing to attack Tokyo. Who would have thought that Mamma Mia would be her best, least campy performance of the year?