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One of the great climaxes in modern romantic comedy arrives at the end of "Moonstruck."
Remember the scene? Everyone's sitting around that luscious-looking Brooklyn brownstone kitchen, sorting out complications and revealing their true feelings, and then all issues become resolved, with a magical Shakespearean touch. The grandfather weeps. "I'm confused," he explains, getting what remains one of the biggest single laughs I've ever heard in a movie theater.
The sequence is stagy in the extreme, and you know what? No one cares.
The satisfactions of that scene are endless. Audiences are perfectly happy to watch characters interact in a room if the words are worth the trouble, and the actors energize what's underneath, and the director knows how to finesse it all.
John Patrick Shanley wrote "Moonstruck."
More recently John Patrick Shanley won a Pulitzer Prize for his most widely produced play to date, a beautifully constructed four-character drama called "Doubt," set in 1964 in a Catholic school in the Bronx.
Shanley has adapted, slightly expanded and directed his play for the screen, and while it helps to enjoy the old-school dramaturgy and knowing theatrical craftsmanship of the piece, I'm probably not alone in my surprise at how well the results work on screen. If more screen versions of plays had this kind of punch, we'd have fewer "Proof"s and more "Doubt"s.
You can diagram the combatants' roles.
Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius represents fearsome law and dogmatic order. The world, in her eyes, is going to hell each new day the students at St. Nicholas are allowed to use ballpoint pens ("penmanship is dying all across this country"). Yet her single-mindedness is far from simple-minded.
Philip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn represents the new, Vatican II theology, looser and more companionable to the students.
Sister James, played by Amy Adams, is the lamb caught between two wolves, whose suspicion that Father Flynn may have entered into an improper or abusive relationship with a 12-year-old student -- the sole African-American in a sea of Irish and Italians -- provides "Doubt" with its narrative suspense.
Onstage, the material worked like Catholic gangbusters, evoking its time and place, mixing drama with Shanley's trademark verbal wit. The play was deceptive, however; without a first-rate performer in the role of Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones, first among first-raters, originated the part), "Doubt" risked tipping into caricature, automatically cheapening its dramatic values, to say nothing of its moral questions.
While Streep has a tiny bit too much fun with some of her character's excesses, she's awfully good.
So is Hoffman, who walks a fine line between obvious guilt and possible innocence. So is Adams, whose naivete stays this side of the wrong kind of comedy. And in a key, wrenching scene, Viola Davis -- who plays the mother of the student at risk -- makes complicated emotional sense of a woman caught in an unwinnable, untenable position.
This is Shanley's second feature as director; the first, "Joe Versus the Volcano," has its defenders (not me). With "Doubt" he makes a few dubious visual choices to heighten the stakes in rather a cheap way: tilted, off-kilter framing; conveniently timed bursts of rain and thunder, coming down from the angry heavens. Fresh off the gleeful camping trip that was "Mamma Mia!" Streep cannot resist a certain portion of ham. Yet every scene in "Doubt," photographed in gorgeous, stern tones by the great Roger Deakins, feels finely calibrated. While it would be a mistake to make too much of it, the film -- full disclosure: I headed the Pulitzer drama jury the year the play won its Pulitzer -- suggests that as a director, Shanley has learned a lot since "Joe Versus the Volcano." We already knew he could write.
Doubt Movie Trailer
About the Movie "Doubt"
Starring Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the movie "Doubt" introduces us to Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the rigid and fear-inspiring principal of the Saint Nicholas Church School who suffers an extreme dislike for the progressive and popular parish priest, Father Flynn. Looking for wrongdoing in every corner, Sister Aloysius believes she’s uncovered the ultimate sin when she hears Father Flynn has taken a special interest in a troubled boy. Without a shred of proof or evidence except her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius begins a crusade to both unearth the truth and expunge Flynn from the school, igniting a battle that threatens to tear apart the Church and school with devastating consequences.
Doubt received 5 Academy Award Oscar nominations
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material).
Running time: 1:44.
Doubt Cast: Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius Beauvier); Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Flynn); Amy Adams (Sister James); Viola Davis (Mrs. Miller).
Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play; photographed by Roger Deakins; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Howard Shore; production design by David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Mark Roybal. A Miramax Films release.
Doubt - Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman 2009 Academy Award Oscar Nominees - Doubt Movie Review & Movie Trailer
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