SPOTLIGHT  * * 1 / 2

Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci. Screenplay by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy. Directed by Tom McCarthy.

An engrossing procedural that’s been hysterically overpraised for obvious reasons, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a sure bet to clean up this Awards Season. It’s well-intentioned, smartly written and for the most part un-embarrassing; qualities one doesn’t find too often these days in a Best Picture contender. Perhaps more importantly, the film is so visually banal and formally undistinguished that it feels ideally suited for the television sets where most Academy Members and Critics Group Voters end up watching films. This thing’ll play like gangbusters on a screener.

A love letter to the kind of long-form investigative journalism that’s all but extinct in our brave new media landscape, McCarthy’s film follows The Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team as they spend months and months running down a paper trail proving the Catholic Church’s complicity in covering up the cases of almost ninety pedophile priests. Played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James, our intrepid reporters exhibit precious little in the way of inner life as they put the pieces together while striding purposefully down hallways.

Liev Schreiber is wonderfully withholding as Marty Baron, the aloof new editor from Florida who kicks everything off by wondering why Boston’s most self-important newspaper has never followed up on a clergy molestation epidemic so rampant it’d become a local joke decades before the Globe’s 2002 expose. Even better is Stanley Tucci as the angry Armenian lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, whose passionate representation of abuse victims fell on deaf ears in our complacent media for far too long.

The only bum performance, shockingly enough, comes from Mark Ruffalo. He’s always been such a relaxed, naturalistic performer; this is the first time I’ve ever seen him straining for effect.  (In last year’s dire Foxcatcher, Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum were *acting* so hard they looked like they were about to rupture veins in their foreheads, meanwhile Ruffalo just breezed in *being* that guy and casually strolled away with the film.) Spotlight is the first time I’ve ever wished Ruffalo would take it down a notch. Dude scribbles notes with such overwrought intensity that I kept waiting for him to turn into The Hulk.

Earlier this year Tom McCarthy, a well-liked indie veteran of modest charmers like The Station Agent and The Visitor, helmed a little-seen film called The Cobbler that shall live forever in infamy. Starring Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman and a magical sewing machine, the queasily racist, body-switching superhero origin story with overtones of rape and incest is a movie so wildly, bafflingly wrong-headed that when I describe it to people they think I’m high. Spotlight is quite an impressive rebound for someone who just a few months ago directed one of the worst movies ever made.

As pretty much all of the action in this film involves making phone calls, sorting through boxes of old papers and filling out spreadsheets, credit McCarthy’s sharp story sense for keeping things compelling. But Spotlight’s also more than a little bit on the nose. In one howler of a scene, McAdams is interviewing a victim as they stroll past a church located next to a playground. Perhaps as a courtesy to anyone in the audience checking their phones, the guy helpfully announces, “Look, there’s a church right next to a playground.”

Just about every review I’ve encountered has compared Spotlight to Zodiac and All The President’s Men, presumably because those two movies also take place mostly in newsrooms and the former even features Mark Ruffalo. But in addition to having David Fincher and Alan J. Pakula instead of, say, the director of The Cobbler at the wheel, Zodiac and All The President’s Men also had Harris Savides and Gordon Willis — two of the greatest cinematographers who ever lived. Those movies might be mostly dudes sitting at their desks scribbling into notebooks, but my gawd there was a richness and texture to the images.

Spotlight is just drab, at times bordering on ugly. There’s a flatly functional artlessness to the visuals that, if feeling extremely generous, we might infer was McCarthy meaning to evoke newspaper prose. But I saw it as a depressing absence of style. Now I’m not suggesting that every movie needs dazzling tracking shots with the camera spinning around upside down for no reason (you can keep your Villeneuves and Inarritus, thank you very much) but I remain of the apparently antediluvian opinion that film is a visual medium and that framing matters.

This is boring, baseline competence and the movie is photographed, scored and edited like an above average episode of Blue Bloods. I can think of maybe two shots in Spotlight during which McCarthy blocks or balances the compositions in any meaningful way. The rest is coverage.

It may be a film worth seeing, but there isn’t much to look at.

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