Doubt (review)

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Passionate performances aside, there’s an odd dispassion to this stage-to-screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Admittedly, it’s tough to put aside those performances — by Meryl Streep (Mamma Mia!) as a hardass nun, Philip Seymour Hoffman (Synecdoche, New York) as the priest she suspects of molesting a student, Amy Adams (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) as the young nun who acts as a buffer between them in a Catholic school in 1964 Bronx, and Viola Davis (The Andromeda Strain) as the student’s mother — but they feel oddly in aid of a trifle… which is decidedly not how things should feel, with such weighty topics under scrutiny. Streep’s nun has no proof whatsoever of her suspicions against the priest except her certainty, which is founded on nothing but her barely subsumed (and completely justifiable) rancor at being so powerless a figure in so misogynist an institution as the Catholic Church. Playwright John Patrick Shanley has opened up his own play with little moments highlighting the beautifully realized world of this insular school, but it still feels shockingly uncinematic. It’s not that talky scripts can’t work — Shanley’s own Oscar-winning Best Screenplay for 1988’s Moonstruck is the perfect example of one that does. It’s that this one never catches fire in the requisite filmic way.

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Sat, Dec 20, 2008 4:01am

MJ, I know this is a busy season for you but I wish you’d be a little more in depth with your reviews of late. You wrote a near-thesis on “Twilight,” but barely more than a blip on “Doubt,” which certainly deals with headier issues and a more noteworthy cast. Maybe the movie really has no bones, but surely there’s more to tell us? Same thing with “Yes Man”–not a whole lot there to go by.

Mon, Feb 09, 2009 12:45am

Doubt really doesn’t deserve more than a blip, ViolaB. I just watched it tonight, and I was really bored by it — the performances were riveting, though, which is what keeps you involved. But just as things finally get interesting the ending sneaks up on you and you realize nothing substantial has been said.

It’s a film about the consequences of incomplete information, I guess… or of the inherent misgivings we all have about our beliefs… or maybe merely the (as MaryAnn says) frustration of being powerless. I dunno, the film doesn’t make any conclusions, which isn’t something I normally dislike, but neither does it prompt the viewer to make his own conclusions. Stuff happens, some great actors get to hang out in dimly lit rooms together, and in the end you’re left wondering what, if anything, anybody can take away from this.

Good was based on a stage play too, but despite its flaws it managed to be compelling and to say something that warranted a discussion afterward. Doubt merely burps at you and doesn’t bother to say excuse me.