Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Undoubtably Not Very Good

Cuddle the ambiguity. Bathe in it. Hell, you might as well have sex with it while you're there, because that's what John Patrick Shanley is doing. He's so in love with ambiguity he's built it it's own house so he can visit it on weekends. There's really nothing better than not knowing a fucking thing about your characters, is there? I mean, I, for one, like nothing better than leaving a cinema knowing nothing more than when I entered it. Such unilluminating storytelling is what everyone dreams of participating in. Meryl Streep knows this. Philip Seymour Hoffman too. They know you don't need to fully understand these characters, or have them make any coherent sense. That's why they shout; it dilutes your brain function, wills you into submission.

Oh, I'm sorry. I think me and sarcasm got a bit too involved there. But I've kicked him out in his underpants now, so don't worry. It's perfectly obvious that Doubt relies on ambiguity like a crutch, but the problem is that it does it in all the wrong places. Check Shanley's trash, because I'm sure that somewhere in there he's disposed of a checklist of all the Big Points that he runs around checking off within the film. Gender politics, check. Racial tension, check. Sexuality, check. Modernity versus tradition, check. Some of these points are so broadly telegraphed that it's almost absurd, and worse, removes the actors even further from any kind of full characterization. Streep and Hoffman eventually give in entirely to this idea, maybe because in the second half the film basically becomes a yelling duet between the two of them. Not hard, since the film famously only really has four characters of any substance whatsoever, and Amy Adams' precocious young nun has already vanished and Viola Davis' mother already swooped in for her one remarkable powerhouse scene.

You can't blame the two headliners too much, though. I hate to point the finger of blame, but this is Shanley's film and Shanley is the problem. For all I know, his original Broadway play is an utter masterpiece, but Shanley is all too conscious that this is a film and he is all too set on opening it out. Intense focus on wild, dangerous weather is alarmingly foregrounded and feels utterly pointless, while his gathering use of canted angles makes the dialectics feel even more self-consciously unbalanced than they already do. One repeated trope of shouting- both from Hoffman and, in her most interesting scene, Adams- blowing the bulb in Streep's office feels particularly blunt in its intended irony. Since Shanley adapted his own stageplay, too, it's easy to blame him for the script's shortcomings.

But even Shanley knows that this is an actor's film, and therein lies both success and failure. Problems with Streep and Hoffman do not, sadly, lie solely in their denigration into a shouting volley- the accent she adopts easily tends towards hamminess, and too often that's the route Streep takes. Hoffman flips so sharply between the kind, caring and hip priest and the verbose, bellowing self-righteous priest that he's basically a priest with a split personality. But Philip, where's the ambiguity?!

But at least we have some superior people to back them up. Amy Adams is given a thankless role; or rather a thankless task, because where at first Doubt might even seen to be about her precocious, confused young nun, it throws her overboard with such sudden flippancy that it's sad to see such strong work go to waste. Adams' struggling against the script's continual insistence that Sister James is a wholly innocent fool mangled into suspicion by Streep's Sister Aloysius doesn't always come off, but it's fascinating to watch her embuing some depth to the character, shading ordinary moments with a more subtle approach that brings to mind, if in a much lighter way, Sally Hawkins' lauded Poppy from Happy-Go-Lucky.

And then there's Viola Davis. I could give you some romanticized backstory about how I already loved this formidable character actress, but I'll just throw out the title Solaris and be done with it. I think the nub of why the part of Mrs. Miller works as well as it does- and that's very well indeed- is because there's no hankering after ambiguity here. Indeed, it's the opposite- what we get from Mrs. Miller is a truth so surprising and naked that it takes both Sister Aloysius and the audience aback. Which is not to say that there is no ambiguity, no subtlety in Davis' performance itself. Mrs. Miller is warring with herself, wondering at first what the Sister wants and then what she should say in response. And further- this performance succeeds where the others don't, where Shanley doesn't, in anchoring the film in a recognisable universe, in a world we can connect with and understand. In Davis' remarkable ten minutes there are embued histories- of racial struggle, of gender struggle, of family struggle- and they are all mingling together as we watch her. It's hard not to tend to hyperbole when remembering this scene, because it sticks out so boldly, and although this is its design it is no less effective.

But sadly, once Mrs. Miller vacates the film, Shanley's muddy ambiguous wallpaper starts to curl up and he basically abandons Streep and Hoffman to try and yell it back onto the wall. Alright, so enough with my bizarre metaphors and whatnot, but I was actually alarmed by how, in pursuit of such delicate ambiguity Doubt could end up being so crashingly unsubtle. Maybe if Sister Aloysius existed as a coherent character beyond one scene I'd care. Maybe if you made any attempt to anchor this school in a world that doesn't function like a horror movie, I'd see these dilemmas as real. But maybe you're relying on Viola Davis a little too much, eh? She can't hold both ends of your wallpaper. C-


Cal said...

Lol @ the first paragraph. I liked the film a lil' more than you, and particularly for its ambiguity sometimes. The confined dilemna thing was interesting.

Totally agreed about Amy. She was my favourite in the film, although she's definitely lead. As for Viola, her whole segment felt so showcased which didn't help her. The acting was good, and she helped me to understand the character a little in that scene, but I didn't feel emotionally moved by it. She was just.... there.

I think the film would have benefitted from having someone older, less famous, less of a screen presence than Meryl Streep in the role of Aloysius. I think she does a good job (especially in the scenes with Amy Adams) but she feels a bit out-of-her-depth on occasion and it seems as if she's still trying to get a hold of the character fully.

Dame James Henry said...

Congratulations John Patrick Shanley. You have somehow made a movie that is both so ambiguous you have no idea if the main event of the movie actually happened and so obvious that you throw in every Film 101 metaphor and "this canted angle represents something deeper" shot in the book. You have either invented a whole new way of making films or you are one of the crappiest directors around (I'm going with the latter).

I thought Meryl Streep did an outstanding job but, then again, this type of "monster" role is perfectly suited to my tastes. Hoffman was fine but by the end he was just YELLING EVERY SINGLE LINE. Amy Adams wasn't bad but I felt there wasn't really anything to get excited about. I thought Viola Davis was quite good but the role is a bit inconsequential, in my opinion.

(Excellent review, by the way!)

Dave said...

Cal: I was definitely on the Amy as lead side while she was actually in the film. But then she vanished and it became obvious the film didn't care about her beyond setting up the "yelling duet" (I've quoted myself. Oh dear.) and so she's basically supporting the plot itself.

I can understand that view about Viola, but she really made the "it's the big moment!" thing not as big a deal as I feared it might be. And agreed on Streep- I could say why didn't they just keep Cherry Jones but then for all I know she might not have transferred well.

James: That is exactly what angered me most. He doesn't care about what happened (even if it is fictional), he just cares that the audience doesn't.

Can't see that view on Streep myself, although sometimes she went so far over-the-top I was actually quite amused. (And I did love the much-shown "Or you will mistake me." line reading.) But each to their own. (And thank you! Now write one yourself- on anything, not this in particular- so I can reciprocate.)

Dame James Henry said...

(I'm working on it! It will be up as soon as I get some free time to actually write the thing)