Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, The
Reviewed by Jeff DeLuzio
Rating: 0 Beans
here's a good movie struggling to get out of "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys." Actually, about four good movies are struggling to get out. There's the wacky comedy about some altar boys pulling pranks in the 1970s. There's a coming-of-age film with some very dark matter at its core. There's a clever film wherein some outsider adolescents work out their frustrations and fears through comic-book phantasies. There's a travelogue of abandoned places.
The problem with "...Altar Boys" is none of these receive the appropriate amount of screen time, and each undercuts the others to the degree that none of them succeeds.
The comedy plot has some funny moments which have been well-written, well-directed, and well-acted. But they are far-fetched moments, which can only work in the context of a movie comedy. As soon as the film turns serious or asks us to believe in these people, it falls to pieces. Yes, these 13/14-year old kids would talk about smuggling a cougar into a nun's office. No, they would never begin to actually do it, nor could they make it as far as they do in this film.
The bildungsromans also features the film's best performer, Jena Malone as the token girl. There's a teeny-bopper romance plot that is striking for its plausible understatement. Usually, teen sex in Hollywood consists of twenty-something "teenagers" shagging indiscriminately or worst-case scenario Kids presented as the adolescent norm. This film shows us reality, and Malone is disturbingly credible. The problem is, her family secrets are so very dark, they destroy the film's comic elements. At the same time, the film fails to develop her storyline, so that in the end, she only exists to get an emotional reaction. You cannot have this story and a wacky comedy in the same film. Or, at least, this film doesn't make the case for combining these two very different tales.
The comic-book plot has potential and some nifty, cheesey animated sequences. These pop up at irregular intervals, and kill the pacing of the movie's other storylines.
The boys model their villain on the repressed, repressive, but well-intentioned, wooden-legged (yes, she has a wooden leg; every adult in this film has arrived for a Colourful Character Convention) Sister Assumpta, played by Jody Foster. I am nearly the same age as Ms. Foster, and have followed her career, literally, all my life. She is a fine actress; this is not one of her finer moments. She has successfully played an FBI agent, a working class rape victim, a feral woman, a runaway, a prostitute, and a little girl who runs with a lion. But nothing can make me believe she is a repressed nun. In any case, they can't squeeze in enough screen time for her character, so we never see the complexities she is trying to show us.
Then we have the abandoned places. Kids like abandoned places. They want to make a world of their own. We all remember this. But this film has too damn many of them. Yeah, these boys would be attracted to the abandoned factory. So would a zillion other kids, urban archeologists, horny teenagers, dangerous transients, and drunken bums. In the film's world, our heroes have the run of the place. Even more ridiculous is the still-furnished abandoned house that becomes a setting for our film's romantic storyline. In a far-fetched, wacky comedy, I would overlook the fact that a long-abandoned house would remain fully furnished and livable. As a backdrop for a sensitive, disturbing story we're supposed to take seriously, it doesn't work at all. It's about as plausible as the prank with the cougar, or the adolescent boys' fascination with the poetry of William Blake. The film asks us to believe too much, and undercuts the comic context that might permit us to suspend our disbelief.
Individual moments of this movie really work. Perhaps the novel upon which it is based ties them all together. I haven't read it.
The movie, taken as a whole, does not succeed.
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