This movie capitalizes on three developments in American culture. First, it takes place in a quiet suburb during the 1970s, à la cult favorite The Virgin Suicides. Second, it gives comic books literary and artistic credibility, à la Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Third, its title recalls the publicity surrounding certain Catholic cardinals' attempts to cover up allegations of sexual abuse against young parishioners. Huh, do you get it? They live a "dangerous life" in the sense that they constantly have to dodge molestation. See, the priest presents a constant "danger" that makes the "lives" of the "altar boys" so incredibly "dangerous". It's a joke, you see, a joke about sexual abuse. Well, if you don't get it, forget it.
The altar boys of the movie's unfortunate title are a pair of eighth graders, Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin) and Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch). Their lives, once upon a time, might have been fairly standard for Irish-Catholic suburbanites: days at the local Catholic school under the tutelage of the one-legged Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster) and weekends serving at the altar with the lackadaisical Father Casey (Vincent D'Onofrio). Francis and Tim escape the surrounding boredom through comic books, both the kind that they purchase from the town's junkie news vendor and their own creation, the Atomic Trinity, which boasts inspired creations like "Captain Asskicker," "the Muscle," and "Major Screw." Although they claim to be working on a complete book, the exploits of the Atomic Trinity play out mainly in a few scattered pages in Francis's binder, and, for the audience, in special animated portions of the film directed by Todd McFarlane (the transition between live action and animation is the movie's original conceit).
The comics appear to be their primary distraction at least, but eighth grade is one of those transitional years where, for those who escape the horrors of teenage geekdom, childhood staples like comic books cease to provide the solace they once did. Although they never abandon their ambition to bring the Atomic Trinity to completion, Francis and Tim find themselves distracted by other things. Francis falls for Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), a girl from his class whose quiet demeanor hides serious inner turmoil (the fact that Margie has attempted suicide is handled in a low-key way that works for a movie but does not, at least if I remember junior high correctly, match the way adolescents would actually deal with such a thing). Timwhose disastrous home life is the subject both of local gossip and school prayersdreams up elaborate pranks against Sister Assumpta; a class field trip to a local zoo leads Tim to dream up what would be his greatest prank: to drug the zoo's mountain lion and bring it to Sister Assumpta's office. Presumably this would make her think that the lion, whose predatory skills were discussed at some length by the zookeeper, had tracked her back to the school. As with all pranks, it's more about set up than result.
The screenplay, by Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni, is conflicted about whether Sister Assumpta really deserves this. On the one hand we are treated to a scene between her and Father Casey where she praises the intelligence of her students but expresses concern over their lack of discipline. On the other hand, she is a petty tyrant. Consider, for instance, the scene in which she catches Tim reading a copy of William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Rather than praising Tim's initiative, she confiscates the book because "Blake is a very dangerous thinker." This rings hollow for two reasons: first, no fourteen year old would actually read Blake, and on the off chance that one did, I can only imagine that the reaction of any teacher would be praise for the student's precocious scholasticism; second, it's a rather feeble attempt to invest Blake's poetry with a spirit of rebellion. Reading Blake may have been rebellious when Unitarians were prevented from settling in the North American colonies, but by the Ford administration I'm fairly sure it had lost its edge. If the screenwriters were desperate to include Blake's work, there were certainly smoother ways of doing it.
Sharing screen time with Tim's pranks is Francis's evolving relationship with Margie. The hesitant, constantly evolving nature of this relationship is unspooled by the meandering screenplay: conversations that take forever to go nowhere, and there are at least three serious crises and an actual one. The unfocused screenplay is aggravated by Peter Care's apathetic direction. Nearly any scene in this movie with more than one adolescent in it (which is to say nearly every scene in this movie) is subject to a sloppily edited montage. This echoes in some sense the way we all remember our childhood in bits and pieces, but given the movie's timeframe it's really a directorial cliché. Indeed, when every scene of kids at play is an episodic idyll shot like an "AM Gold" commercial, I'm tempted to wonder whether anyone experienced the 1970s in a linear fashion.
In truth, the plot doesn't divide this neatly between Tim's story and Francis's story, and the boys' expulsion from school after Sister Assumpta discovers their comic book is equally the result of both halves of the movie; their expulsion is the central crisis, although it comes nearly two hours into the running time. The perfect follow-up to expulsion, of course, is a gigantic and overly elaborate prank, and so Tim and Francis decide that the time is ripe to drag in the mountain lion. The prank itself leads to a climax and resolution that, while admittedly affecting, quite frankly feels a bit forced: it was not set up at all, and it is not allowed to play itself out with any sort of denouement. The result is that we leave the theatre feeling aggravated, which is far from the wistful feeling I believe the filmmakers intended.
Although "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" capitalizes on a few recent trends, it's based upon a novel written quite some time ago by the late Chris Fuhrman. It thus feels slightly derivative, given recent trends, but that's probably the result of poor timing rather than stale thinking. There are, at least, enjoyable moments: the animation is easily the best part of the movie, and when the live action seems to lose direction it's a natural shot in the arm. The most unfortunate thing, however, is that the animation is often a non sequitur: the Atomic is an obvious parallel with how the boys imagine their own lives. Watching those lives on screen, we can sometimes plainly see but just as often wonder hopelessly where the imagination in those comic books might possibly have come from.