Sunday, November 6, 2011

ALLEGED, a bizarre look at the Scopes Monkey Trial, heads straight for DVD

Posing as a romantic drama that just happens to take place during the famous 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial pitting Darwin's theory of evolution against Christian fundamentalist thought, ALLEGED hopes to be a stealth missile in the current war between Bible-thumping creationists and those who favor the theory of evolution. Yes, evolution is a scientific theory. And The Bible? Oh, that's the word of god. Case closed. Late in this remarkably un-illuminating movie, a character implies that science is not to be trusted because it keeps changing. This statement receives knowing smiles all 'round because, after all, god's word can never change. Change -- hello! -- is why we grow. And learn. Or would we rather be back using the outhouse, pre-penicillin?

Before we get into what makes Alleged so paltry and sleazy, let's talk about the good things -- the "look" of the film: production design (Marthe Pineau), costumes (Joseph A. Porro) and cinematography (John Samaras). The film is always interesting to watch from a "pretty" standpoint. And that's it for the good stuff. Director (and sometimes actor) Tom Hines (at right) does a serviceable job with a screenplay credited to a quartet (Charlie Jordan Brookins and Leo Severino for the story, Fred Foote and Brian Godawa for the screenplay). But because the whole thing is so paint-by-numbers (with those numbers upside down and backward, at that), the movie falls flat.

The romantic story involves Charlie and Rose (played by Nathan West and Ashley Johnson), both reporters. She's goodness personified, he's ambitious, hoping to use the trial as a stepping stone to landing a job at a larger newspaper. That newspaper just might be The Baltimore Sun, whose editor H. L. Mencken (Colm Meaney) is in town for the trial. It's in the combination of Mencken/Meaney that the movie reaches its nadir. Mencken was probably not a very nice man, but he was a good writer. Much of his stuff holds up particularly well, but you'd never know it from this film, in which the character is given nothing worth hearing to say and consequently Meaney (below) comes off as simply mean, contemptuous and contemptible.

Everyone else connected to Darwin's theory is pretty sleazy, too. Dirty tricks abound, including the forced sterilization of a poor little girl because, well, that's part of Darwin's theory (huh?). All those who favor the "word of god," of course, could not be nicer folk. And the manner in which the movie handles the racism of the day is, uh, well...  Funny, but that racism doesn't even seem to exist. But how could it? Not where good, god-fearing Christians reside.

Also in the starrier-than-you-might-imagine cast are Brian Dennehy (above) as defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Fred Dalton Thompson (below) as prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. Darrow's characterization come closest to being genuinely full-bodied, and Dennehy is fine, as usual. Thompson is good, as well, but what audiences will make of this pair of dueling titans is up for grabs.

Alleged wants us to understand that this is all that the "theory" of evolution actually is: alleged, with no real, proven truth to it. (As though The Bible is any less "alleged"!) Creationists, to whom the movie is most clearly directed, will understand the "nuances" at work, but everyone else -- which is by far the more numerous audience -- is likely to be confused, annoyed and finally bored.

Is this what that trial and its surrounding happenings were actually like? Hardly. Seeing an alternate reality or a different view of the usual picture can be bracing -- particularly in a satire or black comedy (Alleged does not come close to managing either of these styles, nor was this the movie's intention). But stack the deck to the point that it is here, and one of the other card players -- angry that the "fix" is in -- is likely to pull out a six-shooter and pump you full of lead. Consider this review that bit of gunplay.

Alleged, from Image Entertainment, "streets" on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, November 8, for sale or rental. (Well, you can SAVE it to your Netflix queue, whatever that means in these days of Netflix's non-ordering of so many new movies....)

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