To say that a lot of distinguished actors chew the scenery in the new teen horror romance “Beautiful Creatures” is an understatement. They not only chew the scenery, they chew the costumes, the lights, and the Best Boy too! There’s some good things to recommend in this potential franchise launcher, but letting the likes of great actors like Emma Thompson, Jeremy Irons, and even Viola Davis chomp away like they do in this film is not a promising start.
Blame director Richard LaGravenese, who also adapted the 2009 bestseller by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl for the screen. LaGravanese likes everything big - big set pieces, big effects and big, big, big performances. And he pushes his cast to go so huge in every scene that it made me long for the sensible, subtle work of TV witches Paul Lynde and Marion Lorne in “Bewitched”!
What a shame he lets the adults sail over the top like he does, because LaGravanese gets terrific, naturalistic performances out of his two teen leads. Alice Englert and Alden Ehrenreich, as young witch Lena and her mortal boyfriend Ethan, have a great chemistry together and are a much more likable duo than Bella & Edward in the “Twilight” series. (My disdain for them here: http://exm.nr/L5dAtk) Alcon Entertainment likely hopes that their witches and warlocks will be as successful as Stephenie Meyer’s vampires and werewolves were, but their creatures will be short-lived if they keep letting the hammy adults upstage the kids.
Englert is the daughter of director Jane Campion and she brings the same kind of moodiness to this role as her mother brings to most of her work. Lena feels cursed by her sorcery gifts and struggles with the 'witch' label. (She prefers the term ‘caster’). Still, she's got an evil streak in her and will use her powers to exploit it. Her catfight with her naughty cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) during a family dinner is the best set piece in the film. Their conflict literally spins out of control and turns the dining table into a Tilt-A-Whirl. Unfortunately, most of the scenes after that try to top it and it's just too much bombast. The sensory overload turns it all into noise.
As Lena fast approaches 16, her relatives (Irons, Eileen Atkins and Margo Martindale) bellow and protest to the rafters. They don't want her seeing the mortal boy because of tradition and ancient witch laws that seem laughable after they're quoted a dozen times. Sure, the actors are trying to inject fun into this melodrama, but it makes it cartoonish. And it certainly doesn't help that the wigs and costumes seem like they're right out of "The Hunger Games". (Bet the producers would like this to become that franchise too!) This movie borrows heavily from all over the place. It conjures up memories of “Wicked” and “West Side Story”, and manages to reference just about every film about a backwards hick town from the last 50 years including “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “The Help”.
And why on earth LaGravenese encourages a marvelous talent like Emma Thompson to writhe and paw at herself in every scene is beyond me. Thompson has been stellar in just about everything she's ever done, but not here. LaGravenese pushes her to devour every line like she's starving. She has a thankless part to begin with, playing the town prude whose body is taken over my a villainous witch, but matters are made worse by LaGravenese pushing her to overact in every scene.
Thankfully the teens perform without all the mugging. If you want to see a better horror movie that knows how to blend frights and laughs, check out “Warm Bodies” which is currently in theaters. (My rave of that one here: http://exm.nr/11z9lga). In the meantime, let’s hope that if the filmmakers of “Beautiful Creatures” get another shot at this, they keep their focus on the teens, and make the silly adults simply disappear.