Thursday, May 7, 2009

Doubt (2008)

Certain movies are bad because they try too hard to be unpredictable and end up sacrificing the logic of their story in the process. Other movies are bad because they become so utterly predictable that the act of watching them comes to feel less like an experience and more like reading a laundry list of plot points and reversals that are supposed to be affecting. Writer-Director John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, which is an otherwise well acted and tightly constructed little story, suffers from a problem that I can’t say I’ve encountered that often: it is predictably unpredictable. From frame one-- hell, from the title alone--we know that this movie is going to be an exercise in how little can be revealed and how little can be explained. While this willingness to embrace mystery and uncertainty is something that I have championed time and again, here it ends up draining the story of its energy and meaning, to the point that all we’re left with is a number of not unimpressive shouting matches between great actors. We’re never really able to have an opinion on who is right, because we’re never allowed enough information to truly know what the stakes are. When the film ends, the only thing worth considering is not the substance of what this story is supposed mean or the complexities of its characters, but simply whether or not we believe a plot point actually happened.

The story is set at a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the new priest, Father Flynn, a liberal, worldly man who believes that the church should try to be “friendlier.” His ideas put him at odds with the austere Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the school’s principal, who feels it’s her job to be feared by the children. Caught between the two is the sweetly shy Sister James (Amy Adams), the only young teacher at the school, who is torn between her respect for Sister Aloysius and her admiration for Father Flynn’s new ideas. When Father Flynn’s relationship with a young boy is called into question, it sets the stage for an epic clash between he and Sister Aloysius, who is set on proving Flynn’s misconduct and having him removed from the church.

The film’s best feature is the delicious irony that Shanley constructs around his characters. We take an instant dislike to the strict Sister Aloysius, described by Flynn as a “hungry dragon,” but we know she means well. Similarly, although Father Flynn strikes us as the kindest of men, we know that his affability may conceal a dark secret. For the first thirty minutes or so, Doubt works thanks to this neat trick, where the perceived protagonist could be the antagonist, and vice versa, but it quickly becomes obvious that Shanley has no intention of ever resolving this dissonance. While this is certainly in keeping with the film’s literary style (Doubt originated as a stage play) and all-too-obvious themes, it prevents the story from carrying any real moral weight, and leaves the audience with no point of reference.

The film’s literary origins mean that the metaphors, of which there are many, are going to be placed front and center. Shanley’s script is chock full of reversals and visual cues and clever foreshadowing, but the film wears these devices on its sleeve to the point that they carry little meaning. It’s as though Shanley wrote this story with the intention of it being easily deconstructed. (This is exactly the kind of film that high school English teachers should show their classes, because the metaphors are plentiful and easy to point out.) So if Sister Aloysius has a peculiar hatred for ball point pens and sugar, you can bet Father Flynn writes with one and takes his tea extra sweet. This is not to mention that the weather outside is particularly windy and ominous for the whole of the film, or that-- no kidding-- a light bulb literally blows out in the middle of one of the more heated arguments. This heavy-handiness translates to Shanley’s visual style as well, which makes use of several comically miscued dutch angles at different key points in the narrative.

What saves the film from being a complete miss are a number of excellent performances. Hoffman’s turn as Father Flynn just might be my favorite performance of his career, if only because it was so refreshing to see him play a character that is upbeat and confident instead of the melancholy sad sack that he seems to have become typecast as. For her part, Adams probably has the easiest role as the demure Sister James, but she brings a certain intellectual depth to her character, who could have easily come off as annoyingly wide-eyed and naive. Surprisingly, and though she’s undoubtedly the class of the group, Streep just might be the weak link here as Sister Aloysius. She’s certainly enjoying herself, and really sinks her teeth into the role, but she does take it dangerously over the top in a lot of her scenes. A big part of the problem is the strong Noo Yawk accent that she insists on doing (but only some of the time), which brings a weirdly comic quality to a lot of her lines. I have a theory that great actors often get themselves into trouble with accents. They seem to latch onto them a little overzealously, probably because they see them as a challenge, but the results aren’t always as convincing as one might hope. Streep seems to be one of the repeat offenders in this regard, and here she is outdone on more than one occasion, most notably in a towering ten-minute scene with the great character actress Viola Davis, who completely deserved the Oscar nod she got for her role.

Unfortunately, it seems that every time these great actors manage to build something here it gets undone by the fatal flaw of Shanley’s script. Not ever following through on any plot point means that he robs his story (and his audience) of ever having a chance to explore any ideas of real depth. Because of the route the film takes, all the well thought out ideas about the role of women in the church, or how uncertainty is a part of faith, or how convictions operate, are ultimately trumped by a simple question: “Did he do it?” In a way, this movie is criticism-proof, because any objection to the writing or lack of clarity only further reinforces the theme of uncertainty. The problem is that this uncertainty was such a certainty all along that it lacks any kind of punch. Without getting too pretentious here, let’s just say that mystery only works when there is some mystery about whether or not there’ll be a mystery, and knowing all along that Shanley intends to leave us in the dark prevents the story from gaining any momentum. Maybe it all works a lot more elegantly on the stage, where themes, performances, and metaphors can be employed with a lot less subtlety. But as a film? I have my doubts.

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