Doubt Dir. John Patrick Shanley

[Miramax Films; 2008]

Films released around this time of year usually rely on star power and slutty Oscar performances to garner critical praise, making the words coming out of characters’ mouths a thing of minor importance. But stage-to-film adaptations (I said "stage," not "musical") can usually guarantee two things: good writing and good acting. Wring for the stage is very different than screenwriting. While cameras bring a film to life, words bring a play to life. Yes, the adaptations don't always work — I’m looking at you, Closer — but it's refreshing to actually be engaged in character monologue and dialogue these days.

Of course, the Academy Awards do include the Best Screenplay category, but, um, didn't Sofia Coppola win that for the three sentences she wrote for Lost in Translation? John Patrick Shanley's Doubt will inevitably be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and it's deserving of that award. Doubt is worth seeing just for the spitfire dialogue between Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) as they engage in passionate arguments over morality and tradition, the kind of arguments only sexually repressed people of faith can have.

Sister Aloysius is certain Father Flynn is romantically involved with a young student, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster), the only black kid at St. Nicholas, a Bronx, Catholic school of hard knocks, circa 1964. Father Flynn vehemently denies her accusations of pederasty, and Sister Aloysius spends the majority of their encounters defending her faith in his guilt, suggesting a deeper existential crisis at hand. In the film’s final scene — which is also Streep’s best moment — Sister Aloysius collapses into a blubbering mess. "I have such doubts," she cries to a young Sister James (playing, boringly, by Amy Adams). Streep is fantastic as a woman who has learned to live by and depend upon the patriarch's rules while fighting for as much power as a woman can in her position.

You'd think watching Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep star in the same film would be kinda orgasmic, but it's a letdown. Hoffman overacts as he huffs and puffs his way through scenes, and Streep tries to out-shout him with her Bronx-meets-Tennessee accent, causing the whole thing to reek of melodrama. Streep is still good, but poor Philip Seymour Hoffman. After enjoying him in the fantastic Synecdoche, New York, I was disappointed to see him so miscast. Granted, he makes do with what he’s been given... I mean, it's Philip Seymour Hoffman! Has the guy ever turned in a bad performance? But Father Flynn is a character that requires charm and finesse. He's a guy we should trust at the beginning of the film in order for the developing dilemma to actually seem like a dilemma. But Hoffman is used to playing pathetic perverts and weirdos. That's what he's good at. He doesn't do lovable father figures. So his Father Flynn is just pissed off and kinda creepy. The chemistry that’s needed for the bond between Father Flynn and Donald Muller to seem real is missing.

So Shanley’s Doubt hits and misses in equal measure. It’s a tepid cup of tea, a sure Oscar bet. The biggest problem is Shanley sitting in the director’s chair. Stage-to-film adaptations may have juicy dialogue, but they also suffer from theater-director syndrome. Lots of weird angles, obvious metaphors. "Look at me, I'm symbolizing something!" they scream, as their characters engage in endless, inevitable shot/reverse shot conversations. The staginess is overwhelming.

There’s no certainty in anything once you’ve witnessed something sufficiently shocking, and this fact, not the question of did-he-or-didn’t-he, is at the center of Doubt. The gray thicket between right and wrong, black and white, is where most of us have to live in order to get by. And Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), Donald Muller’s mother, articulates these truths in one crazy-intense scene. Mrs. Miller is willing to turn a blind eye to Father Flynn’s indiscretions so that her son may keep a friend. She also knows her son is gay, and the tears slide down her cheeks and the snot runs as she begs Sister Aloysius to just keep quiet until the boy graduates in June. Davis steals the scene and Streep respectfully lets her have it. Father Flynn is Donald’s protector, Mrs. Miller tells an outraged Sister Aloysius. And for a moment, we find ourselves questioning the black and white nature of child abuse, a crisis of morality John Patrick Shanley has, at least, driven home.

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