(by Dustin Putman
Walking into "Beautiful Creatures," there were certain assumptions made as to what would be seen. A melodramatic teenage love story between a witch and a mortal boy? Check. An attempt to take another young-adult fantasy book series—in this case, the four-part "Caster Chronicles" by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl—and whip it into the same frenzied blockbuster success seen by the likes of "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games?" Check. What can safely be said was not expected was the sight and sound of top-flight British thespian Emma Thompson (2012's "Men in Black 3") uttering the line, "Well, slap my ass and call me Sally!" The circumstances of this dialogue will go unmentioned to keep those unfamiliar with the book in the dark—truth be told, even I'm still not completely sure why she says it—but it is indicative of the picture's lopsided and goofy tone. On the one hand, writer-director Richard LaGravenese (2011's "Water for Elephants") rarely takes things very seriously, perhaps because he realizes what absurd gobbledygook he's working with. On the other hand, at a certain point, the viewer is very much supposed to take stock in what happens to its two star-crossed leads, but their relationship is an obligatory necessity rather than one where there's a wholly believable bond. Furthermore, by never delving deeply enough into what its supernaturally-inclined characters are capable of, the proceedings get all stormy and restless without properly placing things in a coherent context. Article continues below
16-year-old Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) has lived in the nowhere town of Gatlin, South Carolina, all his life, but he has never felt like he belonged. While the other residents busy themselves with God-fearin' churchgoing and Civil War reenactments, he soaks up the knowledge of books by Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Burgess and Charles Bukowski, his love of reading passed down to him by his mother, who not long ago perished in a car accident. As junior year gets underway, Ethan is instantly taken by the new girl in class Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), niece of infamous town shut-in Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons). When he tries to get close to Lena, she pulls away at first, then reveals the truth: she is a so-called "Caster"—a person who can use magic—and on her approaching 16th birthday she will be claimed by forces of either Light or Dark. With the possibility that she will no longer be herself when this time comes, Lena is torn between the consequences of staying with Ethan and letting him go.
It is difficult to get too wrapped up in "Beautiful Creatures" because writer-director Richard LaGravenese doesn't make the viewer privy to what, exactly, is at stake and what the Casters are capable of. It looks as if they can shatter windows and temporarily control the weather, but beyond that it is a question mark. In adapting the novel, shortcuts have been taken, multiple characters have been combined into single ones—as is the case with housekeeper/librarian/confidante/"magical negro"/who-knows-what-else Amma (Viola Davis)—others have been whittled to cameo appearances, and the entire enterprise looks to have been whittled down to its bare essentials. The screenplay is overwrought, as well, so dead-set on being colorful that the words coming out of people's mouths sound like nothing more than a writer's flowery flourish. When Ethan picks up Lena during a rainstorm after she wrecks her car, their conversation quickly hits a lull. His comment on the situation: "That sure was a road to nowhere. I must have missed the exit to fascinating." Right. Also confusing is the narrative's shifting focus. Ethan narrates the story and is ostensibly the hero of the piece, but there are points where he disappears and Lena becomes the lead. If the story is told through Ethan's eyes, how could he know what is going on when he's not around?
Ethan Wate is different than the typical smoldering male teen love interest in that he's entirely comfortable at being goofy, in his skin, and capable of actual thought. Alden Ehrenreich, a relative newcomer in his first feature lead, is convincing as a down-home country boy with a knack for expanding his mind, but, sadly, the 23-year-old is roughly seven years too old for the part—and he looks it. As Lena, Alice Englert (2012's "Ginger & Rosa") is a tough cookie to crack. She fulfills the requirements of her role and looks adequately anxious about her upcoming birthday that could change her very being, but there is an emotional distance the character sets up between herself and Ethan that carries over to the actress, as well. It is tough to care about her when she's built up so many figurative barriers around her. Plenty of fine established actors fill in the rest of the ensemble, and precisely all of them are better than their characters as written. This includes Jeremy Irons (2012's "The Words") as Lena's protective uncle, Macon Ravenwood; Viola Davis (2012's "Won't Back Down"), doing wondrous things with Amma, a character so poorly established it is a mystery who, exactly, she is; Emma Thompson, in a dual role that wastes her twice; Emmy Rossum (2009's "Dragonball: Evolution"), slinking around in low-cut dresses as Lena's cousin of Darkness, Ridley Duchannes; Thomas Mann (2012's "Fun Size") as Ethan's best friend, Link, who is promptly seduced when Ridley comes to town; and the splendid Margo Martindale (2011's "Win Win") and Eileen Atkins (2010's "Robin Hood"), asked to do no more than shuffle in and out of rooms as Lena's wise Aunt Del and Gramma.
Warming up to the part-offbeat, part-routine "Beautiful Creatures" is a tall order, and it will be interesting to see whether the film is a big enough success to warrant a sequel or destined to become yet another would-be franchise that instead goes the way of one-and-done. The ending certainly leaves the door open (in what ways, it dare not be said), though the casual embracing of Ethan's own respective third-act alterations is cause for concern. Is the story, in its essence, actually a call to reclaim empty-headed tradition over the expansion of ideas and free thought? Whatever the case, it is a mixed message that goes against Ethan's true self. Not romantic enough to make the viewer gush and not imaginative enough to work as pure fantasy—by the way, whoever created the garish, beyond-fake interior of the Ravenwood mansion should have gone back to the drawing board before an inch of film was shot—"Beautiful Creatures" falls into a mediocre rut that it doesn't pull out of.