[In the L’s Holiday Gift Guide Issue, we presented a Holiday Film Preview of sorts: Reviews of Movies We Haven’t Seen, probably the most vibrant and opinionated preview we’ve ever run — banking on the predictability of the holiday-movie industrial complex, and also our own tendency to review movies before seeing them. So let’s see how we did. Here, Henry Stewart, who wrote the one on Doubt, compares his preview to his actual response.]
It’s been ages since a recent Broadway show successfully crossed over into pictures. The Producers, Proof, Rent — each fizzled quickly, marking the West Coast as the place art from the east goes to die. Doubt should disappear like the others. Writer-director turned playwright turned writer-director Shanley, last seen in Hollywood penning Congo (for cash!), pits Meryl Streep against Philip Seymour Hoffman for the first time, but Cherry Jones and BrÃan F. O’Byrne did it better — without mugging for Oscar nods.
It’s not the art that went west to die but the artist. Streep and Hoffman aren’t really to blame for Doubt, though they’re conspicuously pushing for the accolades of their Tinseltown peers. Both tease out the play’s comedy (there are quite a few zingers) and nail the characters’ moral complexity, in which the movie’s central molestation mystery is rooted.
But when the curtain fell after Jones delivered Doubt‘s final lines on Broadway, the punctuating darkness delivered a devastating punch to the theatergoers left to slog into the streets. When Streep, in the same role, delivers those lines in the movie, they’re followed by a swooping camera and an angelic choral hymn that continues into the end credits, leaving the audience to drift into the streets atop an ethereal polyphonic current. Such is the problem with Doubt: The Movie.
John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the stageplay and screenplay and directed the film, has a deserved Pulitzer Prize to substantiate his skill as a writer, as well as a history of fostering strong performances through that writing (Moonstruck!). But the filmmaking that surrounds Doubt‘s fine acting is amateurish. Shanley-the-movie-director falls back too easily and often into Hollywood clichés — lazy montages, creamy music and cartoonish ancillary characters. ("You gotta go to da bake-uh-ry aft-uh mass tuh-day," a young, married Bronx woman tells her husband.)
A few of cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins’ gorgeous compositions — frames full of rich lamplight — peek through, but Shanley’s favorite set-up is sticking the character’s head in the middle of the frame. (The DVD’s full-screen option, if studios are doing that still, won’t differ significantly from the widescreen.) Nearly every moment of strong drama is undercut by a lazy musical cue, and just in case you’re missing that life at this Catholic school is out of balance, Shanley frequently cants the camera. He doubts the strength of his own material.
But maybe he has reason to? Shanley’s play tackled themes about the loneliness of doubt and the destructiveness of faith; the movie handles these, too, and to boot includes a sensibilities-shocking scene in which the possibly molested (black) boy’s mother suggests to Streep that molestation is not the Worst Thing in the World when measured against matters of race and domestic violence. But to get his point across, Shanley too often reverts to the symbols of the stage that, on screen, come across as ham-fistedly affected. Streep’s overhead light blows out — twice — during particularly tense moments; gusts of wind are always blowing; thunderstorms are used to match the characters’ thundering emotions; and a cat literally catches a mouse to clue the audience into the story’s figurative cat-and-mouse game.
In short, Shanley has little sense of what separates a movie from a play, and he tries to overcome this shortcoming of understanding by copying the example of Academy Award winners past — he gussies up his story in sap and flash. I’m sure Doubt will pick up a few trophies, or nominations anyway, but in a few years’ time it will fairly be remembered only as the middlebrow awards-fodder it is. To make a prediction: it will join its fellow stage-to-screen adaptations, overshadowed by their precursors, in the Annals of the Forgotten.