"Creatures" Captivates With Stunning Incoherence

“Beautiful Creatures” is difficult to fathom on nearly every level, from its bizarre casting choices to its unintelligible plot machinations. Yet, for all its freakishness, it ends up being a tale of two distinct halves. It’s an experience akin to watching someone restore a car, only to take a baseball bat to the final product. The first act is palatable, but the picture goes so far and so hard off the rails that it wrecks irreparably. It never finds any kind of balance, going from tasteful but kind of dull to inane and sort of captivating. Its zaniness almost makes it worth seeing, but most will be hard-pressed to make sense out of any of it.

Following in the footsteps of “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” the picture is based on a 2009 young adult novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. It’s been directed and adapted for the screen by Richard LaGravenese, writer of “The Bridges Of Madison County” and “The Horse Whisperer.”

Newcomers Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert headline as teenaged star-crossed lovers, Ethan and Lena, united by their status as outcasts but separated by their lifestyles. Ethan shuns the religious fanaticism of his hometown (Gatlin, South Carolina), immersing himself in literature, while Lena is a Caster, a type of witch with powers she can’t control. Her family is deeply dysfunctional, led by her Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons) and her deceased mother, Sarafine, who often takes the form of a local woman, Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson).

Initially, the narrative remains grounded, staking its claim as a perfectly serviceable piece of southern fried gothic romance. The first act has atmosphere in spades and the screenplay smartly teases its supernatural leanings rather than leaning on them. The actors’ accents are uniformly goofy, but charming in their own way. However, when Irons and Thompson face off in an overtly silly battle of wits at the halfway mark, the whole thing begins its slow but steady implosion.

Lena’s 16th birthday is approaching, the date that will reveal whether she’ll live the rest of her life as a “light” or a “dark” Caster. Inevitably, her family thinks that falling in love with a “mortal” is detrimental to her future, and much of the film is spent playing a predictable game of “will they or won’t they.” Some of the characters, including Lena’s evil cousin, Ridley (Emmy Rossum), drop in and out of the narrative as it becomes more convoluted, only to return when necessary. And her never-ending use of the word “cuz” (short for “cousin”) is one of her few defining characteristics.

The single biggest propulsion of the story is a reading montage – perhaps the first in the history of cinema – featuring Lena spending days on end in a Caster library, studying things that seemingly have no bearing on the outcome of the film. Mixed up in all of this is the usually terrific Viola Davis as Ethan’s caretaker, Amma. She’s given almost nothing to do.

The climax is an ordeal in itself, in which writer-director LaGravenese throws lots of nonsense at us, none of which works in the slightest. The finale features a Civil War reenactment, a tornado, battles between fashion-inept witches, and a reference to watching James Cameron’s “Aliens” on Blu-Ray. And it ends with the revelation that one of the leads slept through the climactic fight.

The laughs are almost all unintentional – several involving odd musical interludes featuring Jeremy Irons – but the picture is almost always watchable. There’s a solid story in here somewhere, but this isn’t it, and while the whole cast gives their all, there’s a complete lack of cohesion. Some play it straight, others camp it up, but none are on the same wavelength. I’m not familiar with the source material, but I doubt it was this incoherent. “Beautiful Creatures” has some worthwhile fragments, but it won’t convince anyone to pick up the novel – or hold their breath for a sequel.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: February 14, 2013
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Richard LaGravenese
Screenwriter: Richard LaGravenese
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence, scary images and some sexual material)