Friday, January 9, 2009

Movies: Doubt

My favorite playwriting professor was fond of saying that in the theatre, the playwright is god. When compared to their Hollywood counterparts, the underpaid (compared to the director/talent) and underappreciated (compared to the key grip) screenwriters, this is certainly true. The playwright, after all, retains rights to their script forever and ever amen. This is the lone advantage of not having a union like the WGA backing you. So if you write a play (for example, Marsha Norman’s incomparable ‘night Mother), then some nutball amateur director wants to do something really out there with the setting (for example, changing the house to an ice floe), then you have the right to say no. Which, from what I hear, is precisely what Ms. Norman did. The playwright has the final say on everything. It’s an amazing kind of power to have – a power that, alas, seems to have gone to John Patrick Shanley’s head in creating the film adaptation of his Broadway play, Doubt.

The film, which is set in a Catholic school in the 1960s, concerns a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a pair of nuns (Meryl Streep and Amy Adams), and the suspicion that the priest played a round of Knock the Pope’s Hat Off with an altar boy. No concrete evidence is given, of course, leaving plenty of room for Doubt. (Did that pun make you roll your eyes and groan? Then skip this movie. Trust me.) Hoffman and Streep give fine performances – when don’t they? Streep is especially effective as exactly the kind of scary nun my father remembers from his Catholic school days in Newark in the 1950s. He likes to say their school colors were black and blue. (It’s okay to groan at that one, too.) Amy Adams, usually so lovely, is a weak link. Her wide eyed, shivering innocence reads like they’ve stuffed Giselle, her Enchanted Disney-princess-in-real-life character, into a habit and shoved her onto the soundstage. Viola Davis as the mother of the maybe-maybe-not-molested boy is a real standout. If any character in the movie could have used more screentime, it’s hers, but alas, she retains the one allotted scene the character got in the stage version. In fact, hers is the sole character to not get the supersizing treatment on celluloid.

Shanley chose to both direct and write the screenplay in an act that is nothing short of this film’s undoing. What on stage was a tight, focused narrative about the power of conviction and the peril of doubt has morphed into a meandering, bloated, self-important narrative that says the same things said by the stage version, but in a much less elegant manner. Was there a minor character mentioned in passing in the play? Let’s give them a whole arc in the movie! Was one character’s long winded bloviating not enough to establish their character? By all means, give them several scenes worth of set-up – and retain the bloviating speeches to boot! Shanley ladles out the worst of both worlds in his screenplay. Not only is nearly every word of the play lovingly preserved – not always in the same order as on the stage, mind, with whole scenes chopped up and redistributed, making sure every word is crammed in there whether the transition feels natural or not – but Shanley gave himself carte blanche to follow his every whim in padding out the story. And his sole previous directing credit is that 1990 masterpiece, Joe Versus the Volcano, which he also penned. So while I suppose he can be forgiven for his inelegant framing of shots and unfortunate tendency to focus the camera on the wrong character at the wrong moment, what can’t be forgiven is the fact that he didn’t hand the movie over to someone who did know what they were doing. Similarly, he should have entrusted the script with someone who had enough emotional distance from the source material to excise the excess and bring the best parts to the fore, not bury the whole thing in a thick, rancid layer of offal.

But he didn't, and so we're left with this movie which further proves that Hollywood is no place for a god.

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