January 22, 2009

"Doubt"

All four actors received Oscar nominations for "Doubt." Here's my review from The American Conservative:

Like a great baseball player’s career, Meryl Streep’s three decades in the movies can be depicted in a few statistics: fourteen Oscar nominations, four children, one husband, zero rehabs. Her new role as Sister Aloysius, the fearsome Mother Superior of a 1964 parochial school in the film version of John Patrick Shanley’s drama “Doubt,” would seem like the perfect outlet for her theatricality.

After all, it’s a charismatic job. When I entered St. Francis de Sales in 1964, all the big kids in the second grade explained that I might not survive being sent to the principal, because before Sister Adrian entered the convent she had been a lady professional wrestler.

Unfortunately, Streep’s performance never quite harmonizes with Shanley’s somber adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about the knuckle-rapping principal’s quick conjecture that a genial progressive priest is molesting a 14-year old altar boy. Streep’s hamming up Sister Aloysius as the Wicked Witch of the Bronx sounds entertaining, but she runs out of invention, perhaps due to her deprived upbringing as an affluent Presbyterian.

As a film, “Doubt” is a tidy he said-she said play (imagine Sleuth with four characters instead of two) by the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 1987’s “Moonstruck.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman (an Oscar-winner himself for “Capote”) plays Father Flynn, the newly arrived priest who is the state-of-the-art Vatican II cleric: progressive, genial, even cool. The priest is particularly solicitous of the feelings of the grade school’s first black student, a lonely eighth-grade boy.

Hoffman radiates so much acting technique that he’s a bit miscast as the guiltily cringing molester: you keep expecting the expert thespian to turn on his reality distortion field and bluff his way out of the jam his character’s in, but he never does.

Sister Aloysius is deeply suspicious of this trendy liberal, so she instructs a kindly novice teacher to be on the lookout for any funny stuff. Young Sister James is portrayed by Hollywood’s perpetual ingĂ©nue, Amy Adams of the Disney musical “Enchanted.” Once again, the casting seems a bit off. If the Mother Superior in “The Sound of Music” could recognize that Julie Andrews isn’t cut out to be a nun, surely the even girlier Amy Adams is a little doubtful?

Setting the play in 1964 allowed Shanley, who was born in the Bronx in 1950, to get the period details right (Sister Aloysius bans all ballpoint pens because pressing too hard ruins penmanship), but undermines the plausibility of a plot that should have been set 20 years later.

The institutional crisis brewing in the Catholic Church in 1964 was less homosexuality among priests than rampant heterosexuality: the Father Flynns and Sister Jameses were falling in love, leaving holy orders, and getting married. The admittedly anecdotal evidence suggests that declining numbers of straight priests allowed the gay element in the clergy to reach a critical mass, enabling what had been a chronic but limited problem to metastasize.

By naming his 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Doubt,” Shanley pulled a fast one on the many critics who assume Sister Aloysius is the villainess as quickly as she assumes the worst about Father Flynn.

Programmed to praise doubt and denounce dogma, the pundits salivated on cue when Shanley launched a media campaign to spin his sturdy little play as an attack on religious fundamentalism. In the New York Times, for instance, Christopher Isherwood asserted that “Doubt” delivers “a broader commentary on the state of the cultural and political discourse in America, and indeed on the dangerous human tendency to take refuge in certainty…” Surely, though, the Church’s homosexual molestation scandal is a case of tolerance run amok, just as Father Flynn’s guilt is beyond doubt?

Shanley’s actual text has a much less hackneyed point to make via the movie’s best performance. Viola Davis plays the victim’s mother, who, to Sister Aloysius’s shock, explains that she is at least relieved that her son’s latest admirer is a kind gentleman. After all, she took him out of public school to keep him from getting beaten up by other boys so much.

Shanley himself is struck by the duality he’s witnessed in homosexual priests. A child in his extended family was molested, but a similar man “saw something in me, and educated me; gave me a great classical education. But he was a predator, and in my case he did nothing about it, but in other cases he did do something about it.”

Rated PG-13 for thematic material.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

5 comments:

ironrailsironweights said...

Setting the story 20 years later might not have worked, as by 1984 the number of nuns teaching in Catholic schools was way down. Young ones like Sister James had almost vanished.

Peter

jody said...

at this point the academy awards are far out of touch. they've diverted down their own little path towards boring drama movies that almost nobody saw, or were even able to see.

some of these nominations are sheer garbage. average movies, not even close to great, nominated strictly to shut out entertaining movies and to reaffirm the academy's ironclad committment to predictable, uninteresting drama. many of these films were made from a formula designed specifically to try to secure an oscar nomination. they were gunning for one of the academy's throwaway nominations right from the very start, right from the moment the script writer turned on his microsoft word.

the academy now deliberately ignores well made movies that a good amount of people enjoyed, if the movie had a single major action sequence or was funny or entertaining in any way.

Anonymous said...

The big question regarding this movie in the minds of Catholic school students is, "What's with the strange headcoverings?" They look like they wandered off the set of "Guys and Dolls" where they were playing extras in the Salvation Army. Perhaps Shanley knows of some order of nuns who copied their habits from the Salvation Army, but in my long life as a Catholic, I've never seen anything like this.

P.S. Your Google sign-in doesn't work.

James Kabala said...

For when future people find this post: www.scny.org

The Sisters of Charity of New York predate the Salvation Army by quite some time (several decades), although you're right that the uniforms are similar. I actually kind of prefer this quietly dignified look to the more well-known types of nun habits.

Sorry, Anonymous, that I missed this a month ago. Doubtless you will never see the update, but in case you do, here it is.

Anonymous said...

Well James I'm not that anon but I had a similar question so thanks for the link.