- The Washington Times - Friday, June 21, 2002

"The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" has nothing to do with the scandals distressing the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, but it does trifle with the faithful in loathsome ways, so instant rejection would be richly deserved.
Adapted from a posthumously published novel that was compared favorably to "The Catcher in the Rye," the film dotes on the outrages engineered by a group of parochial school boys in North Carolina during the 1970s. Ultimately, the most lunatic caper, a plot to sedate and then steal a cougar from a municipal zoo, leads to calamity for one unwary youth.
Under the circumstances, it's easy to root for the cougar. Also, question the pathos of a funeral service that supposedly achieves a state of grace when a now-chastened prankster reads William Blake's "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright" as a tribute. Ouch.
The misguided ringleaders are Francis Doyle (Emile Hirsch) and Tim Sullivan (Kieran Culkin). They also are collaborators on a loose-leaf notebook of comic-book illustrations that celebrate a trio of superheroes, the Atomic Trinity. Sometimes the muse compels them to add obscene drawings that mock a one-legged nun named Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster, whose production company helped hatch this little pestilence) and a chummy priest named Father Casey (Vincent D'Onofrio).
As far as one can tell, the school, St. Agatha, is maintained solely by Sister Assumpta, who seems to be the only teacher, and Father Casey, evidently principal and coach. If there are any other faculty members or staff, the filmmakers neglect to depict them.
No doubt the budget was tight, but the production does splurge a bit on animated interludes that transform the Atomic Trinity from pencil drawings into garish and dynamic cartoon figures.
The spiteful outlook of the boys is completely at odds with Miss Foster's own uptight sincerity and dedication. Mr. D'Onofrio may have imagined that he and Miss Foster were an extremely sly update of Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in "The Bells of St. Mary's."
When not fixated on the boys' campaigns to destroy or steal things, the movie becomes preoccupied with an unsavory love match, uniting Francis with a classmate named Margie Flynn (Jena Malone), who endears herself by confessing to a sexual dalliance with an older brother, Donny (Arthur Bridges).
The prospects are sabotaged by the inability of youngsters to keep a secret. Francis blabs to Tim, who blabs to Donny, who starts a fight and then confiscates the precious notebook to surrender it to Sister Assumpta. Margie kind of blames herself for the uproar and admits that it was her idea all along to seduce poor Donny. Well, that clears that up, I guess.
How many cougars would it take to intimidate this godforsaken outpost of Catholic delinquents? It's possible that the book could allude to outrageous stuff without risking the disillusion and repulsion that paralyze the movie. Director Peter Care handles the young actors so stiffly that they can never charm their way out of hateful tendencies. The misbehaving kids he wants to embrace are easier to mistake for a nest of zombies.

No stars
TITLE: "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys"
RATING: R (Systematic emphasis on depraved behavior by parochial school students; occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and graphic violence)
CREDITS: Directed by Peter Care.
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

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