The slice of truthful human vulnerability that writer/director John Patrick Shanley wants audiences to take away after viewing his play-cum-movie Doubt, is Sister Aloysius' (Merryl Streep) anti-climactic transition from "I have my certainty" to "I have my doubts". But Doubt's only successful play is in handing the audience a debatable cliffhanger to walk out into the lobby with. Nothing approaching profundity or fresh clarity comes from this movie which promises so much with its loaded and heavy monosyllabic title.
While watching Doubt, you can feel its calculations at work. This is a film that offers "opportunity" to its participants. Globes, Oscars, "spirit" awards, the back page of Film Comment. Surely, Amy Adams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Merryl Streep envisioned acclaim, credibility, and sit-down interviews with Charlie Rose and/or Larry King when the chance to sign on with Doubt was offered. As the performances go, well, they all come off a bit goofy, but Adams and Hoffman give it the most impressive go. Hoffman, especially, does fine walking those subtle lines between "did he?" or "didn't he?". Surprisingly, Merryl Streep just mucks (and yuks) it up, reprising her The Devil Wears Prada shtick... but with a habit on.
Yielding to self-pride in order to admit one's imperfection is a universal truth worth exploring, but Shanley brings nothing new to this common street knowledge. This is apparent in the director's convenient and politically correct (ie boring and cowardly) decision to set his tale within the confines of a modern Catholic prep school. Instead of crafting a scenario that would appeal to our culture at-large, Shanley spins a yarn that shall please his high-brow, religion-hating buddies. Hoffman's Father Flynn is given sharp finger nails that protrude from his pudgy fingers, like those from a demon, when he flashes his palms to the gym class. Is this supposed to be clever? (Check out the great gym-class scene in Ola Bornedal's The Substitute for an excellent moment of short-shorts proselytizing between student and teacher).
Shanley's second-tier obsession in Doubt diddles with societal power-structure and the faults that lie along lines of gender and elite-level back scratching. But this trope is just as tired and artistically redundant as Shanley's inner-doubt probing. In a sequence intended to provoke, the dinner table of Father Flynn and the monsignors is juxtaposed with Sister Aloysius and her nuns. The men, dining on blood-red rare meat, whiskey, and cigarettes, converse heartily at the widely-framed and warmly lit table, while the sisters are framed tightly, encased in a small room, at a small table, eating poorly and conversing dryly. It brings to mind the class-level juxtapositions in Robert Altman's Gosfard Park, but then quickly brings to reality that in the passing of legends like Altman, the torches got buried along with them.