I’m rather ambivalent about “Beautiful Creatures,” a Southern-gothic-meets-teen-angst story, one of Hollywood’s latest attempt to corral some box office bucks from the young adult romance loving crowd who have stormed the multiplex gates on their way to the myriad “Twilight” films. Based on the bestselling supernatural novel, and the first in a series of books by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the adaptation and direction by Oscar-nominated (for his script to 1991’s “The Fisher King”) Richard LaGravanese is a little shaky for blockbuster expectations. The story isn’t all that extraordinary for general audiences, about Lena Duchannes, the smart, pensive, not-partial-to-God-fearing-fools, 15-year-old niece of local icon Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), whose arrival at the family’s ancestral home in Gaitlin, South Carolina, turns the conservative community aflutter with talk of a wicked civil-war history repeating itself. Ethan Wate, a 17-year-old classmate, a nightmare-laden lad who is anxious to escape the rigid emotional confines for life at college a thousand miles away, narrates the backwater tale with a offbeat, chummy attitude, when he’s not reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” or growing attached to the new girl in the cursed town. Strange things happen, not a secret to everyone. Oh, and there are witches (or “casters”) afoot.
Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert aren’t familiar or stunningly beautiful big screen faces (their future beckons), and I liked their low-key acting approach. They hew a normal adolescence young-and-in-love couple like a nice fitting glove. The rest of the cast floats around them in varying stages of effectiveness.
Irons is decent and nattily attired as the well-mannered uncle. Emma Thompson shines as the crusty Southern traditionalist Mrs. Lincoln, but also plays havoc when she’s possessed by Sarafine, a Dark Caster and Macon’s sister, who has dastardly plans that involve Lena’s impending birthday celebration. Zoey Deutch plays Ethan’s sanctimonious ex-girl friend Emily Asher with standard-issue, bitchy foolishness, yet I was drawn to how well she drew out her red-haired, air-headed character. Viola Davis is Amma, the town’s protective librarian, who hides more than a few secrets behind her book shelves. Emmy Rossum, so great in the cable series “Shameless,” is fierce and fine as Ridley, a dark caster cousin of Lena’s, who carouses about town like a cat out of hell. Unfortunately, it’s a one-note badness, escalating at just the right hair-on-your-neck moment. One of those is at a family meal that literally turns cyclonic. I’d hate to be at their table for Thanksgiving.
The air of Southern gentility is impressed by Richard Sherman’s production design and Jeffrey Kurland’s costume work. The Ravenwood “mansion” is an overgrown hunk of rotting, creaking wood, until you walk into its sleek, ultra-modern interior. The Louisiana locations are pleasant substitutions for the Palmetto State town just off Route 9 and the 95 Interstate.
But, for all the magic, and the ever-approaching, once-in-5,000-years, destiny-setting armageddon of good vs. evil (“The Claiming”), and despite some very interesting visual tricks (and spatial-temporal shenanigans) and occasionally funny dialogue and situations (many concerning the local movie theater marquee’s mangling of current attraction’s title), there isn’t much cinematic excitement. And there are some off-putting attempts to muster up Harry Potter moments. The finale, at the end of the excessive 2-hour-plus feature, runs aground too quickly and comes off as just plain silly.
“Beautiful Creatures” is a half-filled glass of teen pablum.