‘Doubt’ script fails powerful acting

Posted Dec. 11, 2008, at 6:23 p.m.

Coming soon to theaters

DOUBT, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, 104 minutes, PG-13.

The new John Patrick Shanley film, “Doubt,” a church melodrama of the highest order, has so much going for it, it’s too bad it’s ultimately as hollow as it is. But that’s the case and here’s the thing — those who are interested in watching the tug of war between a priest and a nun who hate each other with a white-hot passion should see it, anyway.

It turns out there’s enough to recommend.

The film stars two of our best working actors — Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman — as well as Amy Adams, who grounds the movie in ways that might lead to an Academy Award nomination. Possibly joining her in receiving that honor is Viola Davis, who gives the movie a necessary shot of substance amid the sideshow that is Streep’s cliched but marvelously overheated performance.

Set in the Bronx in 1964, the film follows Streep as Sister Aloysius, the pinched principal of St. Nicholas School who has some antiquated beliefs about how to lead her charges. Vicious Aloysius is all about inciting fear — she’ll literally smack you down if she thinks you’re out of line — which is in direct contrast to how the more liberal and kind Father Flynn (Hoffman) chooses to lead his life.

The film’s first third is a dark satire on Catholicism. Stereotypes abound, with nuggets of truth tucked into every one of them.

For instance, when the nuns gather for dinner, they’re viewed as automatons cocooned in an uncomfortable sheath of silence. Sister Aloysius is the exception. She sits at the head of the table and commands it with her snapping eyes, which flit from nun to nun, judging, always judging, until she chooses her target and asks leading questions that allow her to deepen her own superiority. Given the way Streep plays her, plenty of viewers will be reminded of her performance in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Here, she obviously came to play “The Devil Wears a Habit.” We’re often better for it.

In comparison, when the priests dine, they’re viewed as a loose bunch of heavy-smoking drinkers bellowing over bawdy jokes. They’re men who happen to be priests. Their private behavior is one of the movie’s few insights, with the film growing darker as Father Flynn’s own private behavior is called into question.

Timid Sister James (Adams) sees something that makes her question Father Flynn’s growing relationship with an altar boy named Donald Stewart (Joseph Foster), who happens to be St. Nicholas’ first African-American — and thus, most vulnerable — student. Did Father Flynn do something inappropriate with Donald when he called him to the rectory? The priest claims he did not when Sister James confronts him, but then why did she smell alcohol on the boy’s breath?

Doubt fuels the situation, and Sister Aloysius is eager to take Father Flynn to the mat when Sister James spills the goods. What builds between Flynn and Aloysius is the potential for a massive showdown, which the movie comes close to providing but it fails to deliver with any guts or substance when it counts. It’s discouraging. The moment the movie builds up to just evaporates onscreen.

The good news? It’s still fun to watch Streep bristle into a boiling burn — she has been acting long enough to have her bag of tricks, and she unleashes every one of them here. It’s also a treat to watch her spar with Hoffman, even if they don’t fully come through when they must (the script lets them down).

As for Adams, she has offered her meat and potatoes in this movie (just as her contemporary, Anne Hathaway, is in “Rachel Getting Married”), and she eats them up with a trembling relish. Finally, as for Donald’s mother, Viola Davis’ brief appearance is so powerful, it mirrors Ruby Dee’s Academy Award-nominated performance in last year’s “American Gangster.” On the basis of one scene alone, which she shares opposite Streep, she comes very close to stealing the show.

Grade: B

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

MAMMA MIA! directed by Phyllida Lloyd, written by Catherine Johnson, 108 minutes, rated PG-13.

You could spend all week eating bacon at a pig farm and still find more ham in Phyllida Lloyd’s musical, “Mamma Mia!” an irrepressible, unstoppable kaleidoscope of karaoke camp gone berserk that features a cast happily mainlining the more popular offerings in ABBA’s songbook.

And what a songbook. The energy behind it alone could solve the ongoing energy crisis — let ABBA power your home — and much like the movie, the lyrics driving them are so bad, they’re good.

Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, “Mamma Mia!” stars Meryl Streep as Donna, a former hippie who now toils in the hotel trade on a beautiful Greek island, where her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to marry the love of her life, Sky (Dominic Cooper).

Since Sophie never has met her father but wants to have him walk her down the aisle, she does a little snooping in her mother’s heated diary and finds the three men who could be that man. They are Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth). None of the potential fathers knows what Sophie is up to, and neither does Donna, whose face falls the moment she’s faced with her past — and all it could mean to her present.

Getting her through it are her two best girlfriends, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), each of whom once accompanied Donna in being her backup singer in Donna & the Dynamos.

The rest of the plot is a whirlwind — too much to explore here, but all of which uses ABBA’s songs to tell its story. While it’s true that the film’s chronology never adds up, it’s best not to question it or the other moments of failed logic. This is a messy, shoot-for-the-moon-or-bust movie, with everyone so determined to deliver a good time, they go to great lengths to do so. You’ve never seen such commitment, which is a good reason for the exclamation point at the end of the film’s title. It didn’t happen there by accident, and many will be happy for it.

Grade: B+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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