December 29, 2008

Doubt (12/29/08)

Lettergrade: A

Although I like most of the cast, the commercials for Doubt gave me the impression that it was the kind of movie I probably wouldn't like. I have no explanation for that other than my hunch that it would be theatrical, stogy, and if you'll pardon the expression, preachy. In practice, the movie is none of those things. It is a much more brief and concise picture than I was expecting, but one that is legitimately thought-provoking and well-written at the same time. I appreciated that it was able to do this while staying relatively unpretentious and grounded.

Adapted and directed by John Patrick Shanley from his own Pulitzer Prize winning stage play, Doubt largely centers on Sister Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the crusty head nun and principal at a Catholic school in the Bronx during the 60s. She's breaking in a novice nun played by Amy Adams, while keeping an eye on the charismatic Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose dynamic sermons and progressive views thoroughly chap her firmly-set-in-tradition ass.

When Father Flynn is alleged to have fondled one of the alter boys, Sister Beauvier sets off on a mission to destroy his credibility and oust him from the school. I was surprised, I must say, by the sophisticated manner in which picture allows all this to unfold... a testament both to the quality of the writing and to the actors who filled the roles. Key thematic points deal with the dangers of certainty; How it can limit one's consideration of new ideas and cause reality to be viewed through an unduly distorted lens.

The movie doesn't entirely abandon its stage roots, sticking to a handful of key sets and remaining fairly ambiguous about each character's nature and intentions. There is also a rich, cinematic feeling, however, thanks in part to the emotive work of the sound design team and the simple elegance of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Joel and Ethan Coen's regular guy who also shot Revolutionary Road and The Reader this year). One weird thing, though, is that every once in a while, there's a seemingly unmotivated canted angle, as if we've just walked into the Penguin's secret hide-out from the Batman TV series or something.

To date, the only other movie Shanley directed is a big guilty pleasure of mine: 1990's much reviled Joe Vs. The Volcano. He's also written several movies that the general public hasn't despised, though, including Moonstruck, Live From Baghdad, and now this (although it should be noted he worked as a screenwriter-for-hire on a couple of 90's shitbombs including Congo and We're Back! - A Dinosaur's Story). I guess the rule of thumb is that its safe to buy a ticket if it looks like it was a personal project he might have cared about, but you may want to run in the other direction if it looks like it is not.

I'd hesitate to call Doubt the best movie of the year, but I'd certainly place it among the 2008 movies that I liked best; even now, I'm hard-pressed to name another that I've spent more time thinking about. Someone should really fire the guy who runs the promo department at Miramax.

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