‘Beautiful Creatures’ a daffy but entertaining ‘Twilight’ retread

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beautiful creatures posterBeautiful Creatures

Directed by Richard LaGravenese

Written by Richard LaGravenese

USA, 2013

What Beautiful Creatures has that the Twilight films desperately needed is a refreshing sense of silly self-awareness. The latter books and films, which clearly inspired the former, were frequently funny, if always unintentionally so. (OK, fine, that Michael Sheen yelp in the last movie earns a legitimate chuckle.) The people telling the story of Edward and Bella were so caught up in the relationship that they forgot to allow the characters any personality or levity. Thankfully, Beautiful Creatures is positively bursting at the seams with unexpectedly clever and welcome liveliness. The story’s as goofy as all get-out, but enjoyably so.

Based on the novel of the same name by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures is set in the excessively old-fashioned town of Gatlin, South Carolina. The lead and narrator, Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich), is itching to get out of high school so he can spend his college years far away from home. He’s recently been struck by a recurring dream centered around a mysterious girl. And wouldn’t you know it, a new girl who looks an awful lot like the one in his dream, Lena (Alice Englert), has just arrived in town. She’s from a mysterious, rich, and reclusive family headed by her uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons), a well-dressed dandy who looks down on his fellow Gatlin citizens. As Ethan charms his way into Lena’s heart, he discovers that her whole family are Casters (essentially witches). As her 16th birthday approaches, thus causing her to become all good or all bad for the rest of her life, Lena and Ethan grapple with their budding romance amidst witchy chaos.

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Despite a good number of its plot-based elements feeling cribbed from fantasy franchises like Twilight and Harry Potter, the film version of Beautiful Creatures benefits not only from the script (written by its director, Richard LaGravenese) but its charming, clearly-enjoying-themselves cast, all trying to top each other with their delightfully daffy Southern-fried accents. (The winner has to be Emma Thompson.) Ehrenreich and Englert have surprisingly engaging chemistry, though their relationship starts in the all-too-typical “I will fall in love with you only because I am currently acting as if I despise you for sharing space on this planet with me” mode.

Ehrenreich, in particular, is consistently charming, making it clear that his character sees, in Lena, a beautiful oasis in a desert of clichéd Southern stupidity. And Englert is sufficiently prickly throughout, her character believing that the closer she gets to this mortal, the closer she’ll get to giving into her most evil desires, thus harming him. The adults in the film, all the way down to a hilariously coiffed Margo Martindale, mostly are given free rein to chew the scenery to varying degrees. (Again, the winner is Thompson, playing a pivotal character who gets to be both as pious and as pernicious as possible.)

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Though Beautiful Creatures is almost unflagging in its sheer, trashy (in a PG-13 way) style of entertainment, the script stumbles in the third act. Lena faces trouble within her family, some of whom have been “Claimed” by the dark, specifically her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum, unfortunately wasted). The more imminent the threat gets, the more muddled it becomes for someone who’s unfamiliar with the source material. We are often told by Macon and Ethan’s watchful family friend Amma (Viola Davis, typically lovely and devastating in only about 10 minutes’ worth of screen time) that a relationship between a Caster and a mortal is doomed for reasons historical, yet the film rarely focuses on those enough to give them clarity. Thus, when the conflict kicks into high gear in the last 30 minutes, the threat level feels unnecessarily low. To the film’s credit, the central romance works well enough that Beautiful Creatures is still a surprisingly fun lark; had the script been tighter and more focused, it could’ve been a truly excellent surprise.

For a teen-oriented movie in the mold of Twilight, Beautiful Creatures comes out of nowhere, boosted by its leads’ effortless charisma. Richard LaGravenese deserves credit for writing dialogue that’s constantly dry and snarky, as well as for not overloading the film with painfully obvious CGI. (Some of the effects are a bit noticeable, but others are well-integrated.) Overall, Beautiful Creatures has a winning charm, undercutting your expectations. If this is a Twilight retread, one willing to have its leads pore over the work of Charles Bukowski as if it’s scripture at one point, then bring on more of these retreads. Beautiful Creatures is messy, and the story may be folderol of the cheesiest order, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

— Josh Spiegel

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