Doubt is a shaggy-god story.
Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley from his successful Broadway play, it has all the grace of a high school debate.
Shanley concocts a conflict between a conservative nun Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and a liberal priest Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) that has all the punch of diluted altar wine.
Guess what the fresh and compelling conflict is about?
The existence of God? No.
What is true spirituality? No.
Are the pronouncements of the church flexible? No.
The essence of the conflict is whether or not the priest is a pervert.
The basic question of Doubt is whether or not Father Flynn is pursuing the only African-American lad (Joseph Foster) in a parochial school in the Bronx.
Oh, brave new world!
But even this hoary conflict seems rigged by Shanley. He creates a religious seesaw with which he promotes one character's point of view, then switches suddenly to the other's. Up and down. Down and up.
It's as though Shanley turns on MSNBC and willy-nilly switches to Fox News. This is the playwright's idea of fair and balanced. Political spin has nothing on Shanley.
The cast of Doubt is much better than the script. To see Streep and Hoffman go at it is always a pleasure given their acting chops. As always, Streep is formidable, and Hoffman is interestingly humanistic.
When Father Flynn's asks her, "Where is your compassion?" the willful nun answers, "Nowhere you can get at it." Streep shows her ability to interpret a line and give it tangy potency.
Amy Adams has appeal as a young nun, who naively gives Sister Aloysius her opening to go on attack against Father Flynn. And Viola Davis has an important, emotional scene as the mother of the "targeted" boy.
The cinematography by masterly Roger Deakins creates a palpable atmosphere; he makes light and darkness characters. The direction by Shanley is not equal to the artful cinematogrphy. It has a lot of obviousness -- cat and mouse, threatening weather. And he tries to open up his play with uneven results.
At times in Doubt, Shanley's dialogue is tone and time-deaf. A conservative nun, such as Sister Aloysius, in 1964 would not use the term "black boy" as she does in Doubt. She would say "colored."
And the ending of Doubt is almost laughable gven the motivation of one of the characters. Suddenly this character shows a side we've never seen before. It's deus ex malarkey.
May I suggest an alternate ending? At the conclusion of Doubt, shaken Sister Aloysius sits on a bench in a grotto with a young nun beside her. Suddenly Sister Aloysius lowers her head and utters her final words.
Meryl Streep cries, "Mamma Mia!"
But for want of a more harmonious ending, we are stuck with a contrived one.
Films about religion often discard authenticity, e.g., the shaved armpits of Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in The King of Kings (1961).
Drama can be manipulative, but not at the cost of its humanity.
Ultimately, Doubt is coy rather than spiritual. It's like a sermon delivered by a pontificating priest who can't make up his mind.
Shanley, say ten Hail Marys.