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Arts and Entertainment

LAist Movie Review: Doubt

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Doubt. Photo Courtesy Miramax.

In the entertainment world, the leap from stage to screen can often be a tumultuous one. There are tantalizingly few Dustin Hoffman-Willie Lowman shining stars to help playwrights navigate the dark and treacherous cinema seas. There are no Angels in America lighthouses with which to shore up for a time. Which is why, sad to say, many a play-to-film adaptation simply s(t)inks.

Luckily, playwright John Patrick Shanley has anchored his new film with such reliable and hardworking talent, there is no Doubt it floats. As the Pulitzer Prize winning writer and director of the wildly successful stage show Doubt, Shanley wasted little time in formatting his work into a manageable, and memorable, on-screen force. And the aforementioned talent? None other than Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Meryl Streep. Cough.

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To be honest, Shanley makes it all seem easy. Just write a play, then convince top-tier talent to perform it. In his case, he nabbed two thespians so bankable the government used them as part of the $700 billion bailout. Wham bam, you’ve got yourself a captivating, teeter-totter film that gives audiences exactly what it professes: Doubt.

To simplify, Doubt focuses on a single Catholic school in the 1960's Bronx, with a charismatic new priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). His methodology in dealing with the students is a far cry from the stand-offish and often outdated tactics used by the aging nuns around him. The leader of this septuagenarian pack is Sister Beauvier (Streep), the hard-nosed disciplinarian who acts as school principal and all-around Grumpy Gus. But when a light-on-the-facts accusation of student / priest misconduct hits her ears, it seems Sister Beauvier will stop at nothing to expunge the dangers and evils around her, even if it seems at times she is just playing shadow games. For his part, Father Flynn offers weak excuses but does not have the burden of proof to bear, leading quickly to an intellectual and moral stalemate that ultimately must be resolved.

It cannot be stressed enough how well Doubt does with this level of talent at its fingertips. The abundant and ambitious scenes between Streep and Hoffman fly off the screen, and recall much of the tension and vibrancy the staged version packs in so well. Armed with subtle nuances and small motor movements that are so crucial to the theatrical production, the film is allowed the benefit of external locations, visually stunning shots, and heavy symbolism, without losing the hard-fought needs that keep each character motivated. Perhaps this is what is most compelling about Doubt; it combines the greatest elements of the play with the glossy finish only a film delivers. And just imagine, all this from the same man who brought us Joe Versus The Volcano. Seriously.

Not to take anything away from Shanley himself. He has crafted a wonderfully even-handed plot that tends to leave the audience second-guessing themselves all the way back to the car. By putting Father Flynn as the happy protagonist of sorts, but skewing the dialogue against him slightly, the result becomes a truly cautionary tale about the nature and damage of blind faith. And while the heavyweights duke it out, a very respectable undercard of Amy Adams and Viola Davis take swings at the underlying morality base in a world changing rapidly around them.

With a holiday season release date (December), Doubt is poised to become a top box office attraction, and with good reason. Combining stellar acting from known favorites with exemplary writing and focused direction, John Patrick Shanley has found a formula that works, and works well. But this is no Easy Mac recipe; ingredients like those found in Doubt don't all mix together often. But when they do, the result is always food for thought.