Well, this was a surprise. I hadn’t expected much of anything out of a movie from Richard LaGravenese, though that low expectation was based more on his directorial efforts (like Freedom Writers and especially P.S. I Love You) than his writing, which I’ve mostly admired (and, yes, that includes Rude Awakening). Turns out this movie is more like his better writing than his previous filmmaking. This is a surprisingly intelligent, witty and largely effective blend of teen romance and the supernatural. You can, if you wish, think of it as Twilight for the thinking set, but that actually sells Beautiful Creatures short since it’s worlds away from the cosmic dumbness of Twilight. Naturally, that — and the fact that it apparently plays fast and loose with its popular young adult source novel — has helped cause the film to suffer badly at the box office, meaning that this theoretical three-film series is likely destined to stop here. (Fortunately, the film is more or less a self-contained story.)
I should note that I am not saying this is a great movie. It has certain problems that are kind of hard to overlook. There’s a clunkiness to some of its structure — especially concerning a pair of subordinate characters who get lost in the shuffle. I’m also left wondering what the deal is with hero Ethan Wate’s (Alden Ehrenreich, Tetro) father. Ethan lives with him, but he’s never seen and, though there’s some mystery about him, the film never follows through. Instead, it just forgets about him. (I suspect there was a longer cut of the movie.) There’s also a mystifying scene where Amma (Viola Davis) is making Christmas dinner — mystifying because its placement in the film has this taking place before Dec. 21. Either this got shuffled around in post-production or she makes the slowest cooking turkey in the history of poultry.
Brushing aside those problems, I genuinely enjoyed the film — and not just because of the plummy roles afforded the adult “guest stars” — mostly Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis and Emma Thompson. (Eileen Atkins — sporting a nice lavender rinse — and Margo Martindale are mostly there for atmosphere.) Oh, they certainly help. Irons and Thompson play smoothly amusing adversaries, while Davis affords the movie some much needed adult emotional resonance. For that matter — and despite similarities to Eva Green in last year’s Dark Shadows — Emmy Rossum adds a touch of sexed-up villainy, though her character is one who gets lost in the heavy plotting. Still, the leads are surprisingly good and have actual chemistry. Ehrenreich, in particular, comes off well as a kid who knows there has to be more to the world than his pokey little South Carolina town. (OK, so I don’t really believe he’s a teenager.) There are even intimations of something like depth, especially in a scene where, guided by Irons’ mental prompting of the boy’s subconscious, Ethan outlines his very probable and grimly depressing future if he stays in Gatlin.
Even if LaGravenese gets a little lost amid the characters and story threads, he has certainly blessed the film with genuinely witty, barbed dialogue that helps raise the proceedings far above anything you might reasonably expect. His handling of the more elaborate effects scenes is fine, and it’s refreshing that he opted for practical floor effects whenever possible (the spinning dining room) rather than CGI. But much of what works is found in unstressed touches — like the atmospheric changes made to the plantation’s staircase and entry hall. Still, the selling point lies in the way the characters are developed and how entertaining, believable and likable they are. This is not going to work for everyone. A critic friend of mine really objected to the final scene, while it — and its abruptness — put the film over for me. (Maybe I’m just more in tune with my inner 16-year-old girl than he is.) Opinions vary (just look at the film’s almost 50-50 split on Rotten Tomatoes) but I say give it a chance. Rated PG-13 for violence, scary images and some sexual material.
Playing at Carmike 10