(by Dustin Putman
In the year since "Twilight" was released to theaters, Stephenie Meyer's four-part book series and the burgeoning screen adaptations have turned into a worldwide phenomenon unlike anything seen since J.K. Rowling and a boy wizard by the name of Harry Potter. The target audience began as teenage girls, but has swept over all demographics of the female population. Is the story a worthwhile one, though, or akin to escapist junk food? "New Moon," like its predecessor, falls safely into the latter category, albeit with a troubling message tacked on. A young woman torn between her paralyzing love for a vampire and her emerging feelings for a werewolf may sound harmless enough for cheesy romance buffs, but her subsequent rash willingness to give up her own life and whatever future aspirations she may have had before meeting them is not only immensely selfish, but also depressingly old-fashioned verging on misogynistic. It doesn't help that her relationships with both guys feels superficial at best. Whatever she sees in them, and they in her, fails to go beyond the purely physical. Article continues below
Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is turning 18, a milestone that has led her to the scary realization that she is not only now older than eternally youthful vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), but will continue to widen that age gap as long as she remains mortal. Will Edward still want her when she's an old lady? Can Bella bear the thought of one day dying and leaving Edward behind? Bella comes to find that she may not have to worry about any of that when Edward announces he and his family are leaving Forks, Washington, and do not plan on ever returning. Stripped of the person she believes is her one true love, Bella goes into a worrisome depression leavened only by occasional daredevil theatrics and her close friendship with Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), suddenly a whole lot buffer and with a hairy secret of his own. It isn't really giving anything away to note that Edward does return, though not before Bella has to rush to Italy to save him from the clutches of the evil Volturi family, vampire royalty. In doing so, a key sacrifice must be promised.
Sudsy and overwrought, "New Moon" plays like an extension of "Twilight" with very similar pros and cons. Taking over for Catherine Hardwicke in the director's chair is Chris Weitz (2007's "The Golden Compass"), who incorporates a few imaginative streaks of style—a seamless 360-degree camera movement circles three times around Bella as she sits in her room, the seasons changing outside her window as autumn turns to winter—but otherwise is happy to stick to Stephenie Meyer's revisionist take on bloodsuckers and werewolves, so homogenized one barely recognizes either. For two people who are supposed to love each other the way Bella and Edward do, they certainly are a mopey couple. They look like they are in physical pain every time they are around each other, have little in common—what could a 109-year-old vampire and an 18-year-old girl possibly relate to each other about?—and apparently have never heard of smiling. Nevertheless, when Edward walks out on her, Bella is so grief-stricken that she stumbles listlessly around a forest, eventually rolls herself around in the leaves and dirt, and finally passes out, having to be carried home. Afterward, she curls herself up on her bed and sweatily rants and raves in pain as if she were a heroin addict in rehab. It really is awfully silly.
Save for the unintentional laughs that pop up fairly regularly, "New Moon" holds an almost relentlessly dour tone. Long-winded and slow-moving at 130 minutes, the picture spends an hour following a depressed Bella around after Edward leaves, going out with school pals like Jessica (Anna Kendrick) and Mike (Michael Welch) without her heart being in it, and generally just acting like a Debbie Downer. Spirits lift a bit once she and Jacob draw closer, helped all the more by the fact that Jacob actually has a relatively good-natured personality and is more age-appropriate for Bella. Jacob loves her, but she doesn't think of him in quite the same way. That doesn't stop her from commenting on his muscled build every chance she gets and, no lie, nonchalantly caressing his bare abs in one scene while they hold a serious conversation. Meanwhile, the cornball dialogue, spoken amazingly through straight faces, sounds like it was taken from a Harlequin romance or a spoof of a soap opera. "I'm not like a car you can fix. I'm never gonna run right," Bella tells Jacob when he tries to break through to her. Later, she remarks to him, "You're warm. You're like your own sun." Bella isn't the only vocal offender, either. Before Edward leaves at the end of the first act, he assures a worried Bella that "the only thing that could ever hurt me is you." Good to know.
Nearly the entire ensemble of "Twilight" has returned for this first sequel, and they—along with a lot of the same shooting locations—slip into their roles with such ease it is as if the two pictures were filmed back to back. Kristen Stewart (2009's "Adventureland") takes her role as Bella very seriously—one can tell that she is putting her all into it—but what the actress cannot do is bring reason to a character who desperately needs a hobby as she loses sight of herself. As Edward, Robert Pattinson (2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") is off-screen for a sizable portion of the running time, but makes the most of what he has. Pattinson is called upon to look like a pale clone of Luke Perry, circa 1991, and he succeeds. In an expanded part, Taylor Lautner (2005's "Cheaper by the Dozen 2") is likable as Jacob, and what the performer lacks in polish he makes up for it in sincerity and shirtless shots. Also worth noting, Anna Kendrick (soon to hit it big with her Oscar-worthy performance in "Up in the Air") and Michael Welch (whose "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane" still hasn't found a U.S. release) are wonderful in the supporting roles of Bella's pals Jessica and Mike. These two are peripheral to the main plot, but they still manage to stand out and have been written with a fresh naturalism that makes them all the more endearing.
After a lot of padding and filler, storytelling momentum picks up in the final third of "New Moon" as conflict builds and the stakes are raised for the three central protagonists. A trip to Italy boasts some stunning cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe (2008's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), though the ultimate confrontation with the Volturi coven, led by Aro (Michael Sheen) and deadly pixie Jane (Dakota Fanning), is disappointingly anticlimactic. Why hire actors of such caliber as Michael Sheen (2008's "Frost/Nixon") and Dakota Fanning (2009's "Push") and then saddle them with walk-on cameos? To be sure, concluding scenes that follow set up the third film in the series, "Eclipse," but serve to make viewers who haven't bought into the sappy surface-level pap dismayed over Bella's near-insatiable desire to be turned into a vampire. Doing so would allow her to live forever, but let's not forget that it would also be suicide and take her away from her family and most everyone else who cares about her. That Bella has all but given up on her own humanity by the end for the mere chance at jumping some humorless undead bones for the rest of eternity isn't romantic, or worthy of giddy swoons. Actually, it's kind of like attending a funeral.