Doodad Kind of Town


Having the Last Word….
January 31, 2009, 10:29 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Be careful what you wish for.

Back in November or so, as I was running constantly between business trips, choir rehearsals, church committee meetings and the local multiplex, I ardently wished for an opportunity to step back, slow down and take stock of which activities in my life really meant the most to me.

I was envisioning a quiet weekend retreat or at least a couple of hours on a massage table or a yoga mat. What I got was slipped disk in my lower back while shovelling snow, followed by a prolonged, painfully slow healing period that’s continuing, even as I write this.

While it’s not quite the sort of break I was praying for, I have certainly used the last few weeks for extensive personal reflection. To that end, I’ve curtailed nearly every one of my usual activities since January 7. I have made it to work most days, but after 8 or more hours of sitting at a computer, my back is crying out for relief. So I don’t sit at the computer when I get home. And, because I don’t have the kind of job that allows me to blog – or even do much ‘net surfing – during work hours, this means that both my own blog and my comments on the blogs of friends have gone by the wayside for most of January.

But as my back has gradually begun to improve, I’ve gotten in a few weekend trips to the multiplex, and – at last! – I can start weighing in the end-of-year, award-nominee films, albeit much later than everyone else in the blogosphere.

So, over the next few days, I’ll be posting my “last word” on several of the major Oscar nominees. Let me begin by getting in the last word on “Doubt.”

(WARNING: There will be spoilers. I’m assuming if you’re reading, you’ve already seen “Doubt” – if not, you might want to skip this next part.)

I should have been the perfect audience for this film. A practicing Catholic for most of my life, I left the church in 2003, decamping for a liberal mainline Protestant denomination. Among the reasons for my exit were a disillusionment with the patriarchal nature of the church’s power structure and the deplorable way in which the Church handled child molestation scandals at all levels – both topics integral to the plot of “Doubt.” At 49, I’m old enough (if just barely) to recall the effects of the “winds of change” that blew in with the reforms of Vatican II, also an integral theme in this film (as evidenced by its pervasive, heavy-handed imagery involving open windows and strong winter gales that nearly blow the nuns over.) And I’m still carrying a few emotional scars from run-ins with steely, scary nuns like the Sister Aloysius character played by Meryl Streep.

Why then did “Doubt” not just leave me cold but bore me to tears? During the climactic confrontation scene between Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s possibly pedophiliac priest, I zoned out completely and started mentally planning my shopping list for a post-multiplex trip to the supermarket. The liveliest thought I had in the entire hour-and-forty-five-minute running time? “This play got a Pulitzer Prize? Must have been a bad year for theatre!”

Hoffman’s parish priest may or may not have molested a young African-American student in the parish school; Streep’s mean old bespectacled nun decides he’s guilty and seeks, within in the limits of her powers, to have him ousted. Amy Adams’ sweet, twittery Sister James gets caught in the middle of their battle.

What really happened? Writer-director John Patrick Shanley (adapting his own stage play) never tells us for sure. He leaves it to us to fill in the blanks. Trouble is, the plot has more blanks than filling. Normally I’m a fan of the kind of screenplay that trusts me to figure a few things out for myself, but there’s “tantalizingly ambiguous” and then there’s “half-baked.” Shanley’s screenplay falls decisively into the undercooked category. It’s apparently been assembled according to the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” method of plot development. (“Sister Aloysius was once married?!” Whop! “Sister Aloysius once committed a mortal sin?!” Whop! “Father Flynn got cozy with a bishop?!” Whop!!) Those are tantalizing tidbits, but not a one is them is woven cohesively into the story. Streep thunders and Hoffman counters her with a calculated mixture of self-righteousness and woundedness, but there isn’t a lot of real substance in their verbal pyrotechnics.

Which brings me to the actors. They’re good, of course – after all, they’re Streep, Hoffman and Adams. But award-worthy? No way, no how. Adams is a perfectly cast Sister James, but the role is no stretch for her; she’s essentially the wide-eyed character from “Enchanted,” just in a nun’s habit instead of a princess dress. Hoffman is fine, but hardly incendiary. And Streep? Am I the only one who is getting weary of her? She’s like that annoying straight-A student who wins all the academic awards every year in school, and yeah, she deserves them – but wouldn’t it be nice to see someone else get a nod every once in awhile. (I personally would have loved to see Cherry Jones, who originated the role to great acclaim on Broadway, get a crack at the film.) This is yet another of her “Hey, look at me, I’m Meryl Streep! Now watch me act up a storm!” roles. And if she get an Oscar for this one, I’m going to pitch a fit you’ll be able to hear all the way out in L.A. on the stage of the Kodak Theatre.

The one and only performance in “Doubt” that is powerful enough to grab you by the throat and make you hang on every word is given by Viola Davis as the mother of the boy who may have been molested. She invests her few minutes of screen time with so much dignity and honest conviction that she almost makes up for the overcooked histrionics of the rest of the cast.

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8 Comments so far
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Oh, my good God, Patty…My beloved friend Dorothy Porker (of the brilliant OSCAR site INSIDE THE GOLD) and I have had a running joke for much of our close online association.We refer to each other as twins. (Dorothy, bless her generous and lovely heart, calls me “(her) Tyler Durden.”)Our tastes are so similar it’s uncanny. k – her equally awesome associate on site – has got the identical thing going on with me. All three of us are on the same page consistently with almost everything.And then there were four…Pat, I had no idea that you were Catholic and that you had left the church. I left the Church in a fit of defiance at 14 (HELL YEAH…) for many of the same reasons that you described. From the day I flounced out in a fiery Irish huff, I considered myself an Anglican. Very similar. But far more liberal and inclusive. My daddy was appalled. But no friend, lover or family member can dissuade me when my mind is made up. It’s like talking to the sun, baby.Now I understand, Pat. You really ARE a Capricorn woman, aren’t you…?Hah hah.I likewise had nearly identical thoughts regarding DOUBT.JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY is a brilliant writer and a very capable director. Anyone can check out MOONSTRUCK and JOE VS. THE VOLCANA and see that that’s completely true. So what the hell happened? I think that he was likely going for a particular kind of ambiguity that was deliberately stagyand artificial. That takes guts. But it rarely works cinematically…and it didn’t here. MERYL gets a pass from me just because she is a goddess. But it is the LEAST effective performance I have ever seen her give…and I’ve seen nearly all of them. I’m dying for her to win a third OSCAR. I would hope that it wouldn’t be for this, though. That accent is a bit much…and the way that she attacked her last lines of dialogue (OVER THE TOP doesn’t begin to describe it) just sunk the whole enterprise. I ADORE PSH. But he shouldn’t be nominated for this. AMY ADAMS does have some talent, I believe. Not a lot of range, though. At least not from what I’ve seen her in. I think her nod is a joke.BEST PERFORMANCE – hands down – IS FROM VIOLA DAVIS. Now she REALLY made an impression in the few minutes she had. Absolutely gut wrenching…I was bored out of my mind and I was very happy to leave the theatre. DOUBT (considering its fine cast, the subject matter and that galvanizing trailer) was something that I was genuinely looking forward to.But I felt it was as flat as pancake on Easter Sunday. Amazing. You encapsulated my thoughts on all of this perfectly.I’m glad your back is better, Pat.I’m really looking forward to your opinions on the rest of the prestige crop as we get closer to February 22.

Comment by Miranda Wilding

Miranda -Wow! We have even more in common than I would have anticipated! I admire you that you were stong and smart enough to leave the church at such a young age. I stayed as long as I did because for much of my 20’s and 30’s, I was part of a very welcoming and progressive parish. Then I moved to the Chicago area in 1994, and it was like I had stepped back in time to the early 60s. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from the pulpit some Sundays. My family isn’t happy about my departure, either, but I had to follow my heart and my conscience.I completely agree with you about John Patrick Shanley. For “Moonstruck,” he wrote one of the best romantic comedy screenplays of all time, but this is not his best effort. As you point out, it probably worked better on stage.Always great to hear from you Miranda!

Comment by Pat

I’m so glad to learn that your back is starting to heal. I’ve had acute back pain, and I can’t imagine anything worse. Keep up the good healing.As for Streep, I suppose one could get tired of her, but she’s given me so much pleasure in such a variety of roles (The River Wild, Death Becomes Her, The Devil Wears Prada, Sophie’s Choice etc.) that I don’t mind seeing her work acknowledge time and again. I’d love to see Cherry Jones recognizes, as she’s a favorite of mine. Perhaps we shouldn’t have less Streep, but rather more actresses who deserve a nod and not so many who don’t.

Comment by Marilyn

“Perhaps we shouldn’t have less Streep, but rather more actresses who deserve a nod and not so many who don’t.”I’m with you on that, Marilyn. It’s not so much that I dislike Streep, it’s that I get tired of seeing her grab every single meaty role that comes along for late-middle-aged women. Surely, we could share the wealth before every last good actress over 50 heads for series television in order to get interesting work (ala Glenn Close and Holly Hunter.)

Comment by Pat

I like Streep and, like Marilyn, am grateful for years of pleasure. Also agree that Cherry Jones is great.There’s a certain amount of pleasure in watching an over-the-top performance like she gave in “Doubt,” which I liked much better than you.If I might ask, what liberal protestant denomination did you go to? As you might know, I’m a Presbyterian USA pastor … I’m glad you’re better.

Comment by Rick Olson

Rick -I have liked Streep a lot over the years – particularly in “Sophie’s Choice” – but lately have been more bugged by her. To use a phrase that an old theatre friend of mine used to say, you often catch her acting.As for church memberships, I’m now in the United Church of Christ.

Comment by Pat

Ah, the UCC … you DID go liberal, didn’t you? Good for you.I had a feminist, RC professor of Old Testament in seminary, and I asked her why she remained in a church that wouldn’t extend her a leadership position, and she simply said it was her church.Of the Presbyterian USA, we’re the liberal ones, but not quite as much as UCC.

Comment by Rick Olson

Rick -I understand your professor’s feelings. A part of me will ALWAYS be Catholic. For the first year after joining the UCC, I actaully went through a time of grieving and feeling a little lost. Leaving the Church – especially when you leave as late in life as I did – changes your identity. It can feel like you’ve abandoned your family.

Comment by Pat




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