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Friday, December 12, 2008

Drama Done Right: Doubt and Milk

By Luke


Part of a continuing series of previously neglected thoughts on movies that are out or about to come out... America, it's your birthday.

Late December can be a time when theaters drown in prestigious, starry-eyed bloat. The running times lengthen and the stories get more serious (Holocaust! Terminally ill! Neglected genius!) but nothing is really gained as far as we, the viewers, are concerned. Movies are manufactured with getting Oscars in mind and the results on screen are pretty, but empty (like Rob's dream girl). Based on the reviews it's been getting, "The Reader" seems to be an early 2008 example of this phenomenon. Color me uninterested.

But really, this has been a long way of saying Doubt and Milk are both immensely satisfying Hollywood dramas, driven by ideas and images, not just big name stars or "safe" story formulas. This is Oscarbait at it's finest, which is to say it's not really Oscarbait at all.
In Milk, Sean Penn (seen right) gives the performance of the year (a premature statement considering there are probably thousands of movies I haven't seen this year, but award-hyperbole is as common this time of year as eggnog). I was very skeptical going into Milk because nothing raises my suspicions like "biopics," and only when the New York Film Critics named Milk Best Picture did I decide it was worth my time. One of the most tiring elements of biopics is the syndrome of "stars-getting-serious," which involves a movie star dressing down, doing drugs, singing songs, and getting lots of close-ups. It's an immense relief that Penn doesn't act in this movie so much as live in it, just like Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, he is surrounded by a huge world of a movie, and he manages to stand out through sheer character-wattage (and therefore there are no super close-up reaction shots or break-down-crying-alone scenes or anything else of that ilk).

This is not a biopic. We don't start at Milk's birth and follow him through his misunderstood childhood and early life, etc. etc. etc. We don't cut back and forth all over his life or waste time introducing characters to perform psychiatric analysis (so, unlike biopics, no one ever says "You're not like everybody else, you're special," or "Gosh, you could be great some day!"). This is MILK, the man, the symbol, the movement, this is a Greek tragedy. Early on Harvey Milk explains his love of opera to a skeptic, saying "Listen, can't you hear all the emotion?" and opera becomes a bit of a motif throughout the movie (most notably at the end).

Gus van Sant (left) and Sean Penn (right) on the set of Milk
After exercises in minimalism (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park), Milk is Gus van Sant's opera: full of splendid color, smart performances, and most importantly, brilliant scenes that keep the story speeding at a perfect pace. Like the man himself, Milk gets a lot accomplished in a reasonably short period of time (128 minutes is nothing for most biopics) and the credit lies with both screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who, improbably, has earned his full-screen credit in the trailer) and van Sant who has left the Hollywood formula days of Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting (sure, it's a decent movie, but unspectacular) behind and planted his name firmly on the A-List (or my A-List anyway). I went in expecting to be underwhelmed, expecting to be led along all the predictable plot points, to be told explicitly why I should should care. I came out enthralled and thirsting for more.

Doubt isn't the epic that Milk is, but it's not trying to be. Its source material isn't a man's life, but a Broadway play which unfolds entirely on the campus of a Catholic school and church. I can't remember the last Hollywood movie to be at once this contained and this satisfying, the best comparison I can think of is Chop Shop, which also utilizes only one location and crafts an engaging narrative without much really "happening." Like the title suggests, Doubt is a movie about human uncertainty, and the fact that the main characters are nuns in a faith steeped in rules and tradition makes their inertia even greater.

It is left to the cast to bring the drama to life, and Merryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (seen below) do just that. I was pretty much alone last year when I thought Hoffman gave one of the year's best performances in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, my guess is his comparably brilliant work here in another small, adult drama will also go ignored.
Let's hope he doesn't trade these roles in entirely for showier stuff like Charlie Wilson's War. I'd read disparaging reviews of Streep, mainly comparing her with the play's original actress on Broadway. I can't speak to that, but her role is certainly the hardest to pull off--it must be broad, but not parody. In my opinion, she just about nails it, and considering the Actress races are always less crowded than Actor, she's probably deserving of yet another Oscar nomination. Finally, Adams is solid as the innocent caught between the two titans, even if she sticks around just long enough to introduce the audience to the conflict before becoming useless and practically disappearing.

Most of the rest of the cast is kids, and if the youths can't keep up with their thespian elders...well, picking at weak spots seems needless with a movie this satisfying. It's even more time efficient than Milk (just about 100 minutes) and if it lacks the overt MESSAGE we can typically count on finding in "Oscar dramas," well, that's because with "doubt" and in Doubt, nothing is that simple.

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