Beautiful Creatures throws at us everything a modern-day teen romance can possibly throw – the supernatural, a forbidden love between a mortal and a non-mortal, events from the past affecting the present, a curse, magic spells, family ties, the battle between light and dark – and yet at no point does anything resembling a plot emerge. This is one of the most needlessly convoluted films I’ve seen in quite some time, a story that, in trying to be about everything, ends up being about nothing. Characters with no apparent significance are prominently featured, events occur even though we’re never made to understand why, hopelessly confusing connections are made between scenes that don’t seem to belong together, and we’re inundated with explanations for things we couldn’t possibly make sense of. I have a feeling only those intimately familiar with the original novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl can make heads or tails of this mess.
I wasn’t even able to pick up on a theme, which is really saying something since stories like this are typically vehicles for message making. Consider the Twilight saga, in which the love between a teenage girl and a vampire served as a metaphor for abstinence, or the Harry Potter series, its veiled examinations of intolerance, death, and destiny set against the backdrop of a school for witches and wizards. In the case of Beautiful Creatures, the best we’re given are vague coming-of-age allusions, the central character fated to have her personality set on her sixteenth birthday. Even then, the ending is structured in such a way that it calls into question the validity of this entire maturation process. In the most perplexing of ways, it also throws in the single most overused romantic query in the history of narrative tradition: Can love truly conquer all?
The central character is fifteen-year-old Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), who looks human and yet is actually a Caster – someone born with magical abilities. Her background is never adequately delved into, but it would seem that she has been forced to travel from place to place for her own protection. At the behest of her uncle, the reclusive landowner Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), she returns to her ancestral bayou town of Gatlin, which is populated by a reliable grabbag of southern Bible-beaters with overemphasized accents. A tattoo on Lena’s right hand magically counts down the days to her sixteenth birthday, at which point she will take part in a ceremony that will determine whether she will use her magic for good or for evil. Even though it’s strongly suggested that there’s no determining which side a Caster will fall on when she comes of age, Lena will repeatedly be influenced towards evil by her sexpot cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) and by someone else, whose identity (I think) is not supposed to be revealed in a movie review.
Into Lena’s life enters a human teenager named Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a secular type who makes it a point to read all the novels banned from his school’s library, is resolute in his mission to attend any college that will get him as far away from Gatlin as possible, and repeatedly calls out to his father, a man not seen once in any of the film’s 124 minutes. Although Lena initially resists him, he exudes such boyish southern charm that she quickly drops her defenses and becomes his girlfriend. It would seem that he has also been having dreams about her, although this too isn’t explained. Regardless, his presence doesn’t sit well with Macon, who believes the evil side of the family will use Ethan in their efforts to claim Lena as their own. Their being together is somehow tied into a back story involving a Civil War soldier and the woman he loved, which is revealed in puzzling increments via a metallic pendant that somehow or another reveals itself on a field where lightning repeatedly strikes.
This movie may well factor into next year’s Razzie Awards, not because of its young stars, who are still learning the ropes and have time to mature as actors, but because of its two established stars, who both give stupefyingly bad performances. One is Irons, a normally talented actor who somehow cannot suppress his English accent for his southern character. The other is Emma Thompson. I honestly don’t know how much I can and cannot reveal about her character, apart from the fact that she’s a devout Christian developed solely on annoying generalizations. What I do know is that it has been a while since I’ve seen a more grotesque display of overacting. This is baffling, given Thompson’s three Academy Award acting nominations and one win. With this in mind, I’m inclined to believe that the blame rests with writer/director Richard LaGravenese, who has himself been a reputable filmmaker (among his recent credits as screenwriter is Water for Elephants).
Viola Davis – whose character is all at once a librarian, a magical seer, and Ethan’s housekeeper – escapes relatively unscathed, since she’s the only one playing a passable human being. Credit also to production designer Richard Sherman, specifically for his handling of Macon’s family estate; on the outside, it’s a dilapidated old mansion, but on the inside, it’s a pristine display of modern architecture. That’s about as much praise as I can muster for Beautiful Creatures, a film so randomly structured and haphazardly plotted that it’s all but incomprehensible. Its target audiences are obviously tweens, especially the ones that have devoured each chapter of the Twilight saga in both literary and cinematic form. I have a feeling that even they won’t be able to tolerate this movie. The Twilight films were no masterpieces, but at least we knew what was happening and why.
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