‘Beautiful Creatures’ Review
It’s a challenge young Lena (Alice Englert) asks Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) when they first meet and when they say their goodbyes. On the surface it’s a response to whether or not the book she’s reading (a collection by Charles Bukowski) is worthwhile. On a deeper (but not too deep) level it comments on the true nature of a young woman born into a family of “casters cursed to the dark side.” But from my vantage point, that of a critic readying his review, it was a plea.
Is ‘Beautiful Creatures‘ good? No. Of course not. It’s beyond idiotic. But the strange fact remains that I was entertained for its entire two-hour runtime, something I can not say about many of the other films aimed at the tween/teen female demographic. I wanted to know what happened next, laughed when I was supposed to and thought the young lovers were cute. “Define good.”
As our culture continues to substitute Young Adult literature for, you know, actual literature, there’s no end in sight to bland tales of classically mismatched lovers with a supernatural spin. ‘Beautiful Creatures’ is so brazen of a ‘Twilight‘ knock-off, one has to respect its chutzpah. Instead of a boy vampire, it’s a girl witch (called “caster”); and instead of a mopey gal in the Northwest, it’s a bookish boy in the deep South. You can kick yourself for not writing the four novels yourself.
There’s the usual factions and knotty family trees, but the heart of the matter is young love. Richard LaGravenese‘s film version also has the good manners to be significantly self-aware and to let its talented senior cast members (Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson, mainly) treat the scenery as a famished person would the all-you-can-eat bar at Sizzler’s.
While the special effects are poor to the point of laughter, the deep Southern gothic exteriors juxtaposed with ludicrous, Oz-like interiors lend young Ethan’s entry into the world of immortal magic-users an air of genteel mint julep-soaked good cheer. Irons’ Uncle Macon is a demon by way of John Mahoney’s Faulkner-esque W.P. Mayhew from ‘Barton Fink’ crossed with Roddy McDowall’s Peter Vincent from the original ‘Fright Night.’ (His paisley housecoat resembles Dr. Leo Quintum from DC’s ‘All-Star Superman.’)
Setting the story in a churchgoing small town whose one claim to fame is a Civil War battlefield also allows in a sprinkling of racial/class-structure discussion. While the town is quite harmoniously integrated, the mysterious “seer” played by Viola Davis has a whopper of a scene with Irons where signifiers about slavery, reconstruction and the “new South” are tossed about with the same speed as the perfunctory exposition about curses, claimings and upcoming conflicts.
These scratched-at surfaces (and sartorial choices) were, indeed, enough to keep me in my seat as the inevitable third act drew near. For a film with a running time North of two hours, there is still plenty of world-building that’s just hinted at (and I’m not quite sure who is affected by which spell) but ‘Beautiful Creatures’ sticks with the broad strokes enough that, while you may not be sure why certain characters are acting in certain ways, you’ll intuitively know that that’s what they’re supposed to do.
There’s a definite spark between Englert and Ehrenreich, and if you’re heart doesn’t beat a little during their ‘Romeo & Juliet’ moments, you clearly need medication. The bombastic “prophecy will be fulfilled!” mumbo-jumbo has about as much resonance as in ‘Your Highness,’ but with Emma Thompson in the Darth Vader role, there’s a ‘Bad Seed’ level of camp that really clicks. It’s like mass-dosing on six seasons of ‘Dark Shadows’ at once. ‘Beautiful Creatures’ isn’t a cheap ‘Twilight’ knock-off; it’s significantly sharper and wittier than the original.
‘Beautiful Creatures’ premieres Thursday, February 14.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.