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Review: 'Altar Boys' only mildly interesting

Real life pales in comparison to comic book

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- First things first: "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" is not about what you think it's about, and probably would have benefited from a title change now that the Catholic Church is wrestling with disturbing revelations in front of the international media. (If that's the movie you're looking for, try Antonia Bird's powerful 1994 character study, "Priest.")

"Altar Boys" is quite a bit less perilous, a rather limp coming-of-age story that's invigorated by animated sequences in which the characters are transformed into superheroes and evil villains.

Kieran Culkin and Emil Hirsch star as Tim Sullivan and Francis Doyle, mid-1970s Catholic schoolboys with a major grudge against their uncompromising teacher, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster, who also produced the picture). Tim is the nominal ringleader of a group of students who channel their anger toward Assumpta into an ever-expanding comic book of their own invention.

Gory battles between the kids (who call themselves Capt. Ass-Kicker and The Atomic Trinity) and fire-breathing Nunzilla begin as secretive sketches on lined notebook pages. But they periodically explode into colorful, myth-soaked action sequences, courtesy of "Spawn" creator Todd MacFarlane.

Love story works better

EW.COM: All about 'The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys' 


A note from Paul Tatara
This will be my final review for, number 535, by my count. I'd sincerely like to thank all the readers who made my time here such an enjoyable experience.

I hope I was able to both inform and entertain you, even when you didn't agree with what I was saying. My goal was always to generate a bit of intelligent conversation about the possibilities of commercial cinema. If I could make you laugh at Hollywood's endless supply of inanities while doing it, all the better.

It's been one of the true joys of my life writing for you, and I hope to see you again somewhere down the line. Try to stay true to your heart instead of your adrenaline, and keep demanding more from the American film industry.

Take care,
Paul Tatara

New York City
June 2002

Though the opening scenes suggest that screenwriters Michael Petroni and Jeff Stockwell will focus mainly on the battle of wills between Sister Assumpta and Tim, Francis' crush on a sweet classmate named Margie (Jena Malone) ends up sharing the narrative focus. Of the two stories, the romance has the most resonance, mainly because the characters are given a chance to open up to each other, regardless of how warily.

Culkin's job, on the other hand, is to orchestrate mean-spirited pranks, including the theft of a statue of St. Agatha from a school bell tower. The amount of existential torment he generates among the kids seems more like a writer's invention than the logical outcome of his actions.

The wounded-sparrow ambiance of the halting love story is vaguely reminiscent of Sofia Coppola's much more cinematically accomplished "The Virgin Suicides." The kids' emotional fumbling makes you uncomfortable because you remember it so clearly from your own adolescence.

But you've seen it a million times before, and director Peter Care is too laid-back to let even an ugly secret on Margie's part disrupt the meandering flow. For a movie that's so full of anger and confusion, there sure aren't many memorable clashes, aside from the ones that take place in the kids' imaginations.

Doesn't quite fulfill potential

Foster's Assumpta is painted as such an iron-willed dictator, she's a cartoon character even before the animation kicks in. We know absolutely nothing about the woman, except that she's a textbook authority figure wielding the Holy Ghost as a lethal weapon.

Foster has volunteered in interviews that "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" got made mainly because she was willing to act in it, and that's probably true. But any competent character actress could glare at the kids with a tight frown, so it's pretty disappointing to see it being done by a woman who so memorably stared down Hannibal Lecter.

Vincent D'Onofrio fares much better, in what amounts to a cameo, as a swearing, cigarette-smoking priest who's much more attuned to the realities of day-to-day existence.

This is an earnest little movie with more on its mind than cheap thrills, but you get the feeling the filmmakers think they're raising a bigger stink than they really are. A story about repressed passion caves in on itself while making the transition to film. As Capt. Ass-Kicker and The Atomic Trinity would surely attest, direct confrontation beats peeking around the corner every time.

You'll find a lot to be offended by in "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," if you're the type who likes to be offended. You get kids smoking pot and drinking alcohol, sex, profanity, and wholesale disrespect for authority figures. That said, the script attempts to examine such things with an even hand, instead of just marching them out in the usual parade of pop debauchery.


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