Saturday, December 27, 2008


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.


Slayton said...

How was Viola Davis?

Fox said...

Hey, Slayton.

She was ok... I guess. I think she only has two scenes. Granted, they are crucial, extended scenes, but... eh.

Jason Bellamy said...

"Is this supposed to be clever?"

Pretty much sums up the whole movie. I'm just getting back into the blog world after a holiday break (so no review posted yet), but your review matches themes in my notes.

Nice job, buddy.

Fox said...

Glad to see you are back, Jason!

Especially as we approach the always juicy year-end discussions. (I feel some Happy-Go-Lucky debates Popp-ing up again!).

And yeah, it was interesting to see how the blogosphere started sagging during the holidays. I guess it shows that we're all... er... real people with real lives after all. :)

Sam Juliano said...

I hope I am welcome here. I know you took the hardest position of anyone against me during that Movie Zeal fiasco, but I'm here, I'm breathing and I'm having a great time blogging and writing (my own) reviews at my own website.

Nonetheless, you are an expert blogger, a popular guy and an excellent writer. Still, I disagree with your position on DOUBT, as to open things up would in all probability violate the delicate essence of the material,as can be seen fromother stage-to-screen adaptations, that push the cinematic envelope too strongly. On the strength of some remarkable performances and a deft screenplay (I saw the stage version on Broadway and the film matched it, if the ending took on a rather opposite interpretation) DOUBT will finish in my Top Ten for 2008.

Fox, excellently-written review, fine website and one I'll add today to my own blogroll, so I can check in from time-to-time.

Happy New Years to you and yours.

Fox said...


I'm not one to hold grudges. It was nothing personal, just a serious disagreement at the time.

And congrats on your blog. I knew it was only a matter of time until you got one up.

... but onto Doubt.

I'm almost positive that in either setting - the stage OR screen - that I would dislike Doubt.

My lie with the material more than the settings. In fact, I'm quite a fan of films that can use minimal space and still produce something grand.

I just think Shanley went nowhere with his script/material. It feels more tied to an fashionable anti-religious (anti-Catholic) stance than to really exploring the power of doubt.

Sam Juliano said...

Fox, that clarification makes a lot of sense. If the material is the issue, then I fully respect your position. Iknow I was a bit aggressive in follow-up comments you will soon read under MILK and SLUMDOG, but it's nothing personal...I just get pumped up at this time of the year.....thanks for the compliments........I'll be backchecking out your review for certain...Happy New Year!