Another malformed glop of YA paranormal romance gobbledy-gook arriving on the heels of the comparatively lean and considerably less ambitious Warm Bodies, Beautiful Creatures finds the fine writer-director Richard LaGravenese mired in a swamp of over-plotted teensploitation nonsense with a cast that’s way too good for the room, and knows it.
Based on an apparently sprawling novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, this curious picture stars Alden Ehrenreich as a swaggering, free-spirited intellectual teenager biding his time in the backwoods of South Carolina, reading banned books for kicks and non-threateningly tweaking authority figures with a jut-jawed insolence that in the right light—and there’s not a lot of right light in this poorly photographed picture—looks like vintage Leonardo DiCaprio.
He finally puts down that dog-eared copy of Slaughterhouse-Five to pay attention to the new girl in school, Lena Duchannes, who may or may not be a witch. As played by Alice Englert, daughter of arthouse goddess Jane Campion, she’s a pouty mess of eyeliner, attitude and vintage Bukowski paperbacks.
Only catch is she’s a shut-in, held captive in one of those sprawling Southern mansions overtaken with greenery and overseen by her creepy, hyper-protective uncle abhorred by the community. He’s a Boo Radley figure the town is terrified of, and since we’re talking about Southern Gothic archetypes, you’re probably automatically already thinking of Jeremy Irons, who throws himself into the absurd miscasting clad in ‘80s rock star Edgar Winter fashions while boasting a glorious penchant for devouring any bit of scenery that hasn’t already been nailed down according to FEMA hurricane protection statutes.
Irons is bonkers—and rather delightful. Less so Emma Thompson as Lena’s vengeful mother Sarafine, who, for reasons too convoluted to be recounted in the space of this page, seems to have occupied the body of somebody’s scolding schoolmarm—meaning Thompson is awful in two roles instead of one.
There is much ado about a ticking clock, which might mean puberty or possibly something more sinister, after which Lena will choose either the dark or the light, with a nifty CGI tattoo on her palm counting down the days until the decision, which may or may not be a matter of free will, but I can’t tell you for certain because everyone in Beautiful Creatures spends so much time standing around trying to shout out the plot at one another that I doubt even the filmmaker could follow it.
Quite a shock, coming from LaGravenese—who broke big with his deliriously acidic screenplay for that jaundiced Christmas perennial The Ref and on his own helmed stuff like that lovely Holly Hunter character study Living Out Loud. LaGravenese is also justly famous for his unlucky job adapting The Bridges of Madison County, miraculously wrangling a fine little movie out of one of the worst books ever written in the history of the English language.
But not much seems to have been actually “adapted” in the case of Beautiful Creatures; as with most recent big-screen translations, entire chunks appear to have been vomited onscreen verbatim, undigested. I’m still not sure what Emmy Rossum is doing here as Lena’s wild cousin; her character beats overlap with Thompson’s to a point well past redundancy. Plus it’s sad to watch a fine actress like Viola Davis once again playing a loyal servant to the white protagonist—even more depressing when she’s doing all sorts of voodoo. And nobody anywhere thought this might be offensive.
Yeah, it’s another Twilight redux without the vaguely psychotic, oddly compelling abstinence lectures of Stephenie Meyer’s camp canon, settling in for a few too many half-knowing riffs in which LaGravenese and company take on the backward rubes they’re stranded making a stupid movie about.
Beautiful Creatures has such a labyrinthine, unwieldy structure that I mistakenly assumed it was a condensation of several books, instead of just one. How else to explain such a long-gap, absent incident, during which our heroine goes to the library and reads old books for several weeks on end?
There’s an air of contempt to the picture, with a lot of bored, talented people openly acknowledging that they probably should be doing something more productive with their time. My favorite hat-tip arrives during one of those long montages in which characters are depressed, and the camera slowly pans around their mourny moping to the sound of a tinkling score, eventually revealing Irons behind a piano, playing the sad song like a throwaway joke in a Mel Brooks movie.
Hey, if you people don’t care, I don’t see why we’re expected to sit here for two hours.