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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Fathers' takes unfocused look at abuse scandal

Showtime deserves credit for taking on Boston's pedophile-priest scandal. The pay channel's ''Our Fathers" is the sort of incendiary property most TV outlets carefully dodge. And that's because even while the abuse crisis has rocked the world of faith and exposed an epidemic of ruined lives, this movie will undoubtedly trigger Showtime-bashing by those who see it as a gratuitous attack on the Roman Catholic Church.

But Showtime's willingness to dramatize the crisis doesn't negate the fact that it has come up with a disappointing and overlong movie, one that doesn't do emotional justice to its subject matter. ''Our Fathers," which premieres on Saturday night at 8, is certainly graced with weighty performances by Christopher Plummer as Cardinal Bernard Law and Brian Dennehy as the Rev. Dominic Spagnolia, who publicly condemned the church's inaction. But the script operates too much like a quickly made TV movie about legal maneuvering, or a double episode of ''Law & Order." It trades depth of focus for ripped-from-the-headlines superficiality.

Part of the problem is the movie's ambition, as screenwriter Thomas Michael Donnelly and director Dan Curtis try to fit in too many points of view. They want to give us a comprehensive take on the abuse crisis, and not a tragedy involving specific people. ''Our Fathers" winds up as a crowded group portrait -- of injured local parishes, of an imperious religious institution, of a persistent media outlet (the Globe), and of the legal system. That portrait has taken the Globe and other newspapers years to paint in daily installments. Even at two-plus hours, such a far-reaching movie is doomed to seem incomplete and sketchy.

And when ''Our Fathers" does find something of a focus, it's the least interesting one possible. Lots of screen time is forked over to Ted Danson's Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer who helped expand the John J. Geoghan case into a full-fledged church scandal. For one thing, Danson's performance is monotonous, as he plays one note -- a noble drive for justice -- from beginning to end. We can guess his Garabedian is moved to help the victims by a sense of integrity, but we get no true feel for the man and his motives as he goes door-to-door looking for victims. And we know he'll ultimately succeed in bringing his cause to light, robbing his sleuthing scenes of any suspense.

The movie, which is based on David France's book ''Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal," might have been more engaging had it committed itself to anatomizing the inner workings of the church. The scenes portraying Law's pride and resistance -- revealed with haunting subtlety by Plummer -- are fascinating. As Plummer shows Law weighing the crimes of the church fathers against a public-relations disaster, he ushers in an almost Shakespearean pathos.

Dennehy, too, makes his scenes jump out of the movie's slow march. As Spagnolia, attacking the church from the pulpit, he brings a visceral moral outrage to the proceedings. The broken-spirited victims -- among them Daniel Baldwin's Angelo DeFranco and Chris Bauer's Olan Horne -- are much less compelling. They should be the heart and soul of the story, but ''Our Fathers" portrays them as generic figures of blue-collar angst.

Given the nature of the movie, which includes a few carefully restrained glimpses of molestation, Curtis wisely infuses the tone with gravitas. But occasionally, ''Our Fathers" sloppily veers into the cartoonishness that plagues so many TV docudramas.

Damien Atkins, the actor portraying Geoghan as a young man, goes over the top with his sicko grinning. The sequences involving the Globe are consistently silly, from the smoking in the newsroom to Globe editor Martin Baron's invented exclamation, ''Someone tell the Jew from Miami what I'm missing here." And, as usual, there are too many distractingly bad Boston accents. The story of pedophilia in the Catholic Church certainly needs to be told, but with more accuracy and more humanity.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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