I wasn’t much of a prankster when I was a kid. My crowning achievement was to alter a sign in my hometown laundromat so that instead of it saying “No Dieing in Machine,” it now read “No DYING in Machine.” Cute, huh?
I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad that my mischief making isn’t even in the same parking lot, let alone ballpark, as Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch), his best friend Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin), and two other young henchmen. Then again, few could match this fearsome foursome, the titular altar boys in director Peter Care’s surprisingly morose near-miss “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.” These guys are good.
The four freshly scrubbed assistants to Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio) bristle under the fascist rule of their early 1970s Catholic school. In particular, their bete noire is the super-stern Sister Assumptia (Jody Foster), who displays less humor than a stone wall and about as much personality. She doesn’t see much humor at all, for instance, in the mysterious kidnapping and subsequent ransom demand for the return of a statue honoring the school’s patron saint, St. Agnes. It also comes as no surprise that she’s not amused by the drawings inside a notebook created by Francis and the gang; a lewd, crude and violent embryonic comic book chronicling the guys’ adventures as their alter identities, “The Atomic Trinity.” If she only knew of the really big, potentially deadly prank our robed young friends had in store for her, she’d think twice before seizing the notebook and suspending Francis and Tim, thus giving them a reason to carry out their ambitious plan.
“The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” is certainly a far more accurate representation of adolescent life in the 70s than, say, “That 70s Show.” Care enhances his narrative with superbly over-the-top animated sequences by Todd McFarlane featuring the Atomic Trinity in action against a demonic Sister Assumptia and her evil band of biker nuns! A nice gimmick in and of itself, these sequences reinforce and supplement the real world events, taking us inside Francis’ prolific mind as he grapples with the problems in his life.
Despite the temptation to label “Altar Boys” a nostalgia film, you’ll find very little here in the way of fond memories. School life is harsh, home life is even harsher and there’s nowhere else to go. Even Francis’ blossoming romance with Marjorie (Jena Malone), a shy and pretty schoolgirl, gets rocked by a shocking series of revelations that strips away her angelic veneer.
Lots of things work well on their own in “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.” Unfortunately, the film as a whole never really clicks. The rhythm is too slow, the foreshadowing and foreboding so palpable and so prolonged that you just want to get the tragedy you know is coming over with and get on with your life. For her part, Foster looks every bit the stern nun, but she also seems as if she’s trying way too hard to act the part, only her fake Irish accent keeps getting in the way.
All the pieces are there with “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.” In spite of this however, the film ultimately feels empty and unsatisfying, like swallowing a Communion wafer without the wine.