November 12, 2002 -- I know what you are thinking. A movie with a name like "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" just has to be about a scandal involving priests molesting altar boys. That's what you would think, but you'd be wrong. It isn't anything quite that upbeat. To be sure, the film doesn't make the Catholic church look good, and it is about a taboo kind of teen sex and there is even a nifty element of child porn, but it is not about wayward priests. In fact, the first three-fourths of the movie is a comedy. That's right comedy, and it mixes with the more tragic elements of the story like oil mixes with water.
The film starts out as a kind of light-hearted romp with our hero, Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin of "The Cider House Rules") thinking of all kinds of funny pranks to pull in Catholic school. One of these stunts has to do with making off with a large religious statue. There are some very funny scenes in the film, some of them involving comic book characters created by Francis Doyle (played by Emile Hirsch) and several other boys, including Tim. Most of these kids have Irish surnames. One of the main villains in Sullivan's comic book, "The Atomic Trinity," is a grim incarnation of a one-legged nun at the school, Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster of "Anna and the King") who becomes the relentless "Nunzilla" in the comic book. These cartoon adventures come to life in short animated sequences that punctuate the film. The story in the animated sequences parallels the live action story in the rest of the film. It is an effective way to show that these kids see the world as a good versus evil struggle and they see themselves a super heroes (or they would like to be) in that struggle.
The funny stuff in the film trails off, however, as it plunges into an ocean of pathos, where it drowns. We go from funny childish pranks to fighting, incest, tragedy, ghosts and that ultimate of Hollywood horrors, an injured dog. That's right, it is the dreaded coming of age film. The lesson is that life is not as simple as it seems when you are young. There are many shades of gray between those blacks and whites. The lesson is also that not even a super hero can fix all problems. Yadda, yadda, yadda. This is Catcher in the Rye stuff. I suppose if I had to go through all this kind of pain when I was a kid I might have become a screenwriter so I could inflict the same pain on audiences all over the country. It seems only fair. It is the revenge of the wounded soul of the artist. The fact that their souls are wounded is probably where the artistic spark comes from. The only trouble is, some of these artists never seem to get enough revenge. They just keep trying to inflict their pain over and over again. It is so tiresome, but it is a risk you run when you go to see an "art" film.
The movie also has a heavy dose of William Blake, featuring his book "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." In this book Blake, a hippie long ahead of his time, refuted contemporary religious notions of good and evil and the separation of the body of and soul. The illustrations in the illuminated book foreshadowed the "graphic novels" and multimedia presentations (including hypertext) that came much later. Blake was a perfect example of a person with an artistic temperament who rejects conventional morality. Blake's famed poem which begins, "Tyger, Tyger burning bright," is even read aloud in the movie.
As you would expect from an art film, the acting and direction are excellent. Nothing hones the artistic skills as a art movie about art. It has a very talented cast of actors, led by Oscar-winner Jodi Foster. Foster is great as usual, but her character doesn't have any depth written into it. Also good as one of the few adults in the film is the clueless, chainsmoking priest, Father Casey, played by the fine character actor Vincent D'Onofrio of "The Cell." The child actors are also very good, including Jena Malone of "Life as a House," who plays Doyle's girlfriend, Margie Flynn. The story, based on a book by Chris Fuhrman has elements of tragedy and comedy that don't seem to coexist well in the movie. Perhaps they coexisted better in the book. Perhaps if both elements had been established earlier in the film it would have worked better. Instead, a sharp, clever, insightful comic tone was established early, then the tone switches to a dark, clumsy melodrama later in the film. While I did not care much for the last part of the film, but the three-quarters of it is good enough that I'm recommending it. This film rates a C+.
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