Kicking the Habit
Catholic-School Story Leaves its Comedic Promise at the Altar
It is said that it's a lot easier to write drama than comedy. Still, it's hardly outrageous to expect that a premise rife with comedic potential would somehow pay off in a funny movie. Such is the problem with The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, the debut feature from British music-video director Peter Care. It's tough to imagine how a tale brimming with elements that usually spell comedy gold--Catholic school, nuns, teen angst, juvenile delinquency, the 1970s, drug humor, outlandish pranks, comic books--could turn out to be such a bummer, albeit a sensitively rendered one.
Ordinarily, the screenwriters (in this case, Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni) or the director would be to blame for not following through with setups as promising as, say, Jodie Foster playing an uptight, authoritarian nun hobbling around on a phallic wooden leg. But the film's damning earnestness is in keeping with its source material, the 1994 cult coming-of-age novel of the same name by Chris Fuhrman (who was dying of cancer when he wrote it in 1991).
In the screen version of Altar Boys, newcomer Emile Hirsch plays Francis Doyle, the more sensitive half of a pair of mischief-prone best buds--fantasy-stoked rabble-rouser Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) is the other--who basically live to goof off. The 14-year-olds experiment with pot, make noxious cocktails containing whatever booze they can siphon undetected from their parents' liquor cabinets, speculate about girls and sex, stage elaborate practical jokes, and draw comic books lampooning their rivalry with their perceived archenemy, geometry teacher and peglegged priss Sister Assumpta (Foster). In lush, offbeat animated sequences illustrated by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, she's depicted as a motorcycle-riding, habit-clad harridan called Nunzilla who torments the boys' superhero alter egos.
Since parents are scarce in Altar Boys, it's no wonder that Sister Assumpta provides a big honking authority figure for Tim and Francis to rebel against. To be fair, she does 86 Tim's copy of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience after admonishing the verse-loving softie that Blake was a "dangerous thinker." Otherwise, it's unclear what the two have against Sister Assumpta--she's a sourpuss, sure, but a well-meaning one (a nice touch, considering their intense hatred of her). She's certainly more concerned with their welfare than is her ineffectual colleague, laid-back pastor and coach Father Casey (a wry Vincent D'Onofrio), who casually lights up a cigarette before dispensing vague advice to Francis about a moral quandary (which the cleric assumes, incorrectly, is sex-related) during a priest/altar boy heart-to-heart.
Sex does enter the picture, but not in a way you would expect, when burgeoning heartthrob Francis courts his cute, imaginative classmate Margie (Gena Malone). The troubled lass harbors a shameful, Southern Gothic-style secret, the revelation of which doesn't add up to much, save for giving Altar Boys a slight melodramatic edge. Francis' escalating relationship with Margie creates a rift between him and the obsessive Tim, whose plans for revenge against Sister Assumpta become increasingly elaborate and bizarre. The scheme Tim ultimately cooks up--which involves feeding angel dust to a mountain lion housed in a local wildlife park, then transporting and releasing the crazed cat on school grounds--not only seems implausible but makes the characters seem impossibly boneheaded for attempting to carry it out. The plan has predictably tragic results, but the absurdity of the scheme undercuts the seriousness of its outcome.
The best thing The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys has going for it is its live-action/animation blend. The transition between the two isn't exactly smooth, but it's a fun, novel way of shaking up--and commenting on--the strangely dour narrative. Mainly, the 'toons in Altar Boys underscore the one thing likely to stick with you after the movie ends: the notion that fantasy not only provides a momentary escape from our daily lives, but helps us come to grips with all the heartbreaks, setbacks, and perplexities adulthood offers.