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Doubt (2008)

A movie directed by John Patrick Shanley

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I just don't understand the appeal or hype

  • Dec 27, 2009
Pros: The camerawork and settings are pretty good

Cons: Weak story, weak characters, weak acting, poor pacing

The Bottom Line: I was ultimately bored.  There was nothing about the story or characters that indicated it was worth any mental/emotional investment.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot.

To limit the risk of accidental plagiarism, I tend only to read reviews of the same product after I finish mine; however, I do a gloss of what is already there (if there seems to be something that is exactly what I would write, I usually decide not to write). I noticed something that makes me question my opinion a bit. Among the VH reviews, everyone liked Doubt. It isn’t that I didn’t “like” the film, just that I didn’t see anything special enough to recommend it.

The film starts with Father Flynn giving a sermon on doubt which, as much as anything really, is more about loneliness. His premise is that, shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, people were held together out of a shared sense of agony, but that some were excluded from this society of woe, and society in general.

Father Flynn is the primary priest for St. Nicholas church and school. It’s in a working-class Irish-Italian neighborhood in The Bronx. The school’s principal is Sister Aloysius, a very old-school nun seemingly so obsessed with doctrine and tradition that she doesn’t allow students to write with ballpoint pens because they encourage lazy penmanship. Along with keeping a stereotypical eagle eye on the students, she keeps a cold but careful eye on the half a dozen other sisters attached to the school, chief among them is Sister James.

Sister James is a young nun, but still more doctrinaire than not. She teaches 8th grade, a year that generally sees students hit puberty, meaning a young nun having to deal with the emergence and intensity of adolescent sexuality. Sexuality and its expression are what ultimately drive the film.

Donald Miller is the only black student in the school. Since he is largely protected by Father Flynn, he seldom sees any bullying. The question, though, is whether there is a price for this protection. Sister James brings the initial concern to Sister Aloysius who then confronts Father Flynn with her suspicions.

Doubt contains enough mystery about it that I shouldn’t cover any more of the plot. Enough time has passed from the two-to-three year period of Catholic priest pedophilia being a collective open wound that less salacious stories can be told and not be considered opportunistic. All the same, does Doubt bring anything new or interesting to the multitude of movies about a rigid Catholic school in general or a potentially abusive priest in specific? Nope.

The film has three main characters and all of them are (in an image I use unfortunately often) right off the b-grade stock character shelf. Father Flynn is the pudgy, pale priest filled with love and kindness, and perhaps a bit of eponymous doubt. Sister James is the young and weak idealist teacher wanting to make a difference but is stymied by her timidity so she bows almost without question to any figure of authority. Sister Aloysius is the tough old crone nun; the only difference between her and the stereotypical nuns anciennes that Catholic school survivors talk about is that she doesn’t carry a ruler.

The three principles cover the gamut of good actors. Amy Adams, Sister James, is likely to have a strong career given the wide range of roles she has played and played well. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Father Flynn, is one of the “actors of a generation” putting him along-side Kevin Spacey and Tommy Lee Jones (each man generally takes parts that fit his style so each man is top notch for his character set—very little overlap); there are other generational actors and we all have our favorites here—but for now . . . Meryl Streep, Sister Aloysius, is ne plus ultra; I think even people who are not fond of her or see her as overrated can mostly agree on her impact if nothing else.

Sister James is a very flat character. Her moments of spine and deference are textbook for a noviate trying to bring something fresh to a stodgy and staid culture. She is very easily cowed when faced with any amount of authority. An actor of Ms. Adams’s abilities (and expense) need not have been used. Father Flynn is the smiling affable Irish guy, seen one seen them all pudgy, pale priest. Mr. Hoffmann did himself a disservice, I think by taking such a simplistic role. His moment and a half of indignation is almost embarrassing in its high-school drama class presentation—he would also be a bit costly.

Ms. Streep though . . . I cannot understand why she would want to play so limiting a character and do it badly.

It could be that I was simply expecting more of such a heavyweight cast. I understand that one of the biggest challenges for an actor is to take on such a rigidly defined character (I mean this in general and not just specific to this film). You can really prove your talent if you can pull it off—the same can be said for a singer going a capella and with no monitors or a knitter who can make a sweater with only knit stitches without flaw. I just think they failed. They either chose badly, were not allowed either by script or director to expand the character’s range, or simply did not bring their A game to a C movie.

Also, the story is weak. Again, does Doubt bring anything new to the priest\child abuse or teacher\child abuse storyline? It does not. Perhaps in the same way of the stellar actors trying to create something sublime out of stock characters, the story might be trying in its constipated way to push the bounds of what has become a modern morality play. If so, it does not succeed. It is boring and I am no more invested in it than I am any of the characters.

Before I get to the final coffin nail, I need to present an alternate possibility (though admittedly a straw-man). Doubt started its life as a play. A play is preciously intimate and it is possible for an actor in a stereotypical role to stand out because of this intimacy. And a story containing the binary ambiguity in Doubt can work on a stage. The problem is that this sort of intimacy is totally lacking in a film. There is an additional problem specific to this film. John Patrick Shanley wrote and directed the movie based on his own play. It is possible for someone in that position to have the perspective allowing for adjusting a stage play to the screen and still retain what power it had live. While possible, it didn’t happen here.

The reason I bring up the play at all, though, is the ham-fisted symbols in the film. A foul wind creating the metaphor of a world in disorder is as old as time. It can work on stage because it is difficult to present that sort of external condition in so limited a space. On screen, though, it is silly. The same thing happens with a light bulb that keeps blowing out above Sister Aloysius’s desk—when there is an unorthodox idea in her office, the light blows. I sat watching it thinking “you have got to be kidding me!”

Finally, though, I just didn’t care. Donald Miller, the potential abuse victim. is a metaphor, not a person, so there is nothing solid for sympathy to ride on. Father Flynn may be a terribly wronged man, but there is nothing tragic or sympathetic about him to make me give a rip. Each sister faces moments of pathos but they are quickly dispensed with except for one. Like the heavy-handed symbolism, the final pathos is not only hackneyed, it is out of place so badly that it weakens an already flat character to caricature.


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More Doubt reviews
review by . January 22, 2011
(some spoilers)      Doubt has the benefit of a great cast, an incredibly well-written story and good direction from the same man who wrote the play. It's definitely not one for everyone, especially those who need explosions and half-naked women to enjoy a movie. It is very dialogue-heavy, and before seeing this movie I had the benefit of reading the play. The movie definitely maintains faithfulness to the play and I am glad that Hollywood did not ruin the play. Every single …
review by . July 23, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
Doubt DVD cover
“A truth that’s told with bad intent… Beats all the lies you can invent.” -William Blake   “It was the schoolboy who said, ‘Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.’” -Mark Twain   There’s a certain quality that a simple work of art possesses that allows it to transcend differences of perspective and opinion, that makes it appealing to people of separate demographics, and that enables people with contrary perceptions to unite …
review by . April 13, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
teaser poster
Based on the award-winning play and adapted for the screen by John Patrick Shanley, who also directs this film, "DOUBT" is a riveting, powerful film full of raw emotional drama that registers as something truly worthy of praise. It has been made outstanding by the exceptional performances that would give you goose bumps and enough meat to talk about after the first viewing. It is just a film almost impossible to ignore with its superb direction, beautiful but simple cinematography--truly …
Quick Tip by . August 26, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
Unlike religion, I won't tell you what to believe. But I will tell you, without a doubt, that this movie is great, so go check it out!!!
review by . June 01, 2009
Ok, I admit that I had to be forced to watch this. The idea of priests, nuns and potential child abuse is a toxic mix of boredom that makes My Beautiful Launderette seem like a great night of entertainment. It's definitely not my sort of film, but I'll admit that it doesn't have any dragging scenes or slow moments at all, and ranks as one of the best dramas in a long time. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep (where do actors get their names?) turn in fine performances, …
review by . April 16, 2009
DOUBT is a riveting movie with a terrific cast. The story is set in a Catholic school in the mid-1960s, fixed in time by reference to the assassination of JFK. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the tough principal who has no time for the popular, progressive priest of the parish, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). When he preaches a sermon on doubt--the lack of moral clarity and how to find your way through it--she sees it as a personal statement of his guilt about something, and warns her nuns …
review by . December 26, 2008
I'll admit that the commercials for this movie didn't make it seem terribly worth seeing. In fact, most of my friends had no idea what I was talking about when I told them I saw this movie. But talk about an exciting drama that somehow leaves you with no solid answers! Despite that, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver a stunning performance that makes you forget you're in 2008. They take you back to the 1970s where a private Catholic school struggles with staying in the past, or advancing …
review by . May 25, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
Sorry, I'm going to be on the other side of this film, thinking it's not that great. To me it felt like a train wreck running in super slow motion. The story is a fairly well known story, there is no doubt about what will happen. Maybe the only glimmer of doubt I had was how explicit would the director be in describing what happened.     Details unfolded so slowly. This felt like a movies from the 20's or 30's or a Victorian novel, where there was a different viewer dynamic; …
review by . February 08, 2009
Short Attention Span Summary (SASS):     1. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) is the iron-fisted Principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx   2. A sermon by Catholic priest Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) causes her to voice some concerns   3. Young Sister James (Amy Adams) notices that Father Flynn is paying special attention to a male student from a minority group   4. She voices her concerns to Sister Aloysius, who believes her concerns …
review by . May 08, 2009
Religion is built on faith. By definition, it must be, for it cannot prove its claims and most of what we know about science refutes most of what's said by religion.    It is using faith that Sister Alloyicious (Meryl Streep), bases her entire case against a charasmatic new priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). He's the embodiment of Vatican 2, and she's... well, probably Mel Gibson's grandmother.    The priest is doing things like giving sermons in English, that …
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About this movie


It's always a risk when writers direct their own work, since some playwrights don't travel well from stage to screen. Aided by Roger Deakins, ofNo Country for Old Menfame, who vividly captures the look of a blustery Bronx winter,Moonstruck's John Patrick Shanley pulls it off. IfDoubtmakes for a dialogue-heavy experience, likeThe Crucibleand12 Angry Men, the words and ideas are never dull, and a consummate cast makes each one count. Set in 1964 and loosely inspired by actual events, Shanley focuses on St. Nicholas, a Catholic primary school that has accepted its first African-American student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), who serves as altar boy to the warm-hearted Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Donald may not have any friends, but that doesn't worry his mother, Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis in a scene-stealing performance), since her sole concern is that her son gets a good education. When Sister James (Amy Adams) notices Flynn concentrating more of his attentions on Miller than the other boys, she mentions the matter to Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the school's hard-nosed principal. Looking for any excuse to push the progressive priest out of her tradition-minded institution, Sister Aloysius sets out to destroy him, and if that means ruining Donald's future in the process--so be it. Naturally, she's the least sympathetic combatant in this battle, but Streep invests her disciplinarian with wit and unexpected flashes of empathy. Of...
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Genre: Drama, Gay & Lesbian
Release Date: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Screen Writer: John Patrick Shanley
DVD Release Date: April 07, 2009
Runtime: 1hr 44min
Studio: Miramax
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