Good for Emma Thompson.
“Beautiful Creatures” proves again how comfortable Aunt Emma is sitting at the kids’ table at the movie banquet. More specifically, Thompson continues to be a kind of super-literate, one-woman movement among great movie actresses on behalf of young adult and children’s literature. She’s adapted and starred in “Nanny McPhee” movies herself. In “Beautiful Creatures,” she has a showy doppelganger part as the prissy neighborhood scold and gossip who doubles as a sinister witch who might well eat children for breakfast.
All this is lovely, really. Nice of Aunt Emma to be such a conspicuous book fan in movies. But if “Beautiful Creatures” proves anything at all, it’s that Emma Thompson is long overdue to leave the kids’ table and sit with the adults, where the glasses of wine and scotch are. (Apparently that’s what’s going to happen in her next few films, thank heaven.)
“Beautiful Creatures” is, self-evidently, an attempt to do for Kami Garcia’s young adult novels what the “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” movies have done for other blockbuster young people’s novels. It doesn’t work. Garcia wrote the script herself for Richard LaGravenese’s film, and in this case that wasn’t good news.
I have no doubt that the book’s most specific audience – post-pubescent girls with all the melodramas, resentments and trepidations that go with heading into your midteens – will have a good time following the overstuffed narrative and supernatural razzle-dazzle about the untidy and nasty folkways of supernatural, quasi-human creatures called “casters.”
Me? I thought it was all much too much of a muchness.
Reading a book crowded back to front with incident, plot switcheroos and double and triple personalities for just about everybody is, no doubt, congruent with an early teen view of a confusing, oppressive world. For those of us a wee bit north of that in the chronological scale, it’s too much self-dramatization for its own sake to follow.
Any adult who has ever driven a car full of 14- or 15-year-old girls for more than 10 minutes knows full well what I’m talking about. There’s something quite wonderful about all that bursting liveliness, but it does get a bit fatiguing after a while, yes?
So does “Beautiful Creatures.” I stopped being interested in almost everything but Thompson and Jeremy Irons after about 40 minutes.
Irons plays Uncle Macon, an ultra-decadent Southern aristocrat who sounds just like Irons when he talks and who is a long-standing member of that supernatural tribe called the “casters.” They come in two flavors, it seems, dark and light – much like chocolate. On the dark side, they do bad things, have bad thoughts and use their supernatural powers in bad ways. On the light side – where Uncle Macon resides with more than a little apparent regret – they’re more responsible. They only use their special powers to combat evil – or, when bored, to indulge in a little good-natured mischief.
The plot turns around Lena, played by Alice Englert, the most misunderstood teen girl in town and Uncle Macon’s “caster” niece. Lena is a bookish sort who’s about to turn 16. At that time, there will be big doings in the heavens and we’ll all find out if the stars make her a good “caster” or a witchy “caster” worse than any Marilyn Manson groupie.
A funny thing happens to her on the way to womanhood: The film’s hero and narrator Ethan – played with realistic doofushood by Alden Ehrenreich – falls in love with her. What’s a foolish small-town Southern boy to do, after all, when he reads Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut and a moody new girl comes to town with a bad reputation, a bad attitude and a library that includes the poetry of Charles Bukowski?
It’s hard to dismiss Ethan completely when he cheerily denies that his new relationship will send him straight to hell. “I want to stop off in New York” first, he says.
At this point, I couldn’t possibly have been more on this movie’s side. I’d have been delighted to watch a movie about dueling libraries among teens in a culturally backward Southern town where Thompson is hamming it up as the local censor-in-chief and the gossip whose nasty nose is in everyone’s business.
But then all the supernatural stuff takes over – so much of it that Viola Davis is not only wasted as our hero’s housekeeper/guardian but as someone who sprouts an uninteresting double identity of her own.
There are lots of special effects, not to mention sudden visitations to Uncle Macon’s mossy manse from his family, including his beautiful niece Ridley (Emmy Rossum), who dresses in haute-slut clothes, drives a Ferrari much too fast and thinks nothing of killing people.
Will the young love of Ethan and the girl standing on the very edge of Satan-worship survive all? Will Uncle Macon – a “voice of reason in a town of buttermilk minds” – prevail over double-threat Thompson, who’s the town mega-yenta in one incarnation and hell’s own den mother in the other?
Just when things are already so narratively overcrowded that I wanted a brief break, we have to start worrying about who’s going to survive a Civil War re-enactment.
Neither of the actors playing the lovers – Ehrenreich or Englert – really belongs in the same movie as Irons and Thompson and Davis.
Director LaGravenese began like a house afire years ago, writing the wild and woolly script for Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King.” What’s happened since is that he has become progressively worse.
Here he is with this young adult dud, making a supernatural fantasy that’s even more overgrown than a good Gilliam movie but not half as creative or a third as much fun.
It would have been a lot more fun if the kids in love merely had to win the battle for Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski in their local library and not righteousness itself among the magic-dealing supernaturals.
That’s kind of a lot to ask of the kids, don’t you think?
2½ stars (out of four)
Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Alden Ehrenreich
and Alice Englert in Richard LaGravenese’s film of Kami Garcia’s young adult novel about bookish teens and adults with magic
powers in a backward Southern town. Rated PG-13 for violence, scary images and some sexual material, opening Thursday.