2.5 stars out of 4 stars
Take "Twilight," toss in a little gallows humor, a lot of camp, better acting and switch out vampires with witches and you'll end up with "Beautiful Creatures." The only thing surprising about it (and the recent "Warm Bodies") is that it took so long to get made. All three endeavors are based on hugely successful chaste young adult novels geared squarely at easily impressionable (and even easier to please) teen girls.
Not quite as good as "Warm Bodies" but far better than "Twilight," "Beautiful Creatures" succeeds best when not taking itself too seriously and immersing itself in swamp-thick Southern Gothic pathos. There's a great movie hiding within the frames of "Beautiful Creatures," but the material doesn't quite suit the generally more reserved and clipped tone of director/adapter Richard LaGravenese.
The only person close to approaching intellectual status in his backwoods South Carolina town, Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) rips through novels banned by the stuck-in-the-1950s schoolboard while counting the days when he can vamoose. Doing his level best to avoid any kind of social interaction with the equally shallow, neo-con-minded local teens, Ethan's humdrum day-to-day gets a welcomed jolt with arrival of Lena (Alice Englert), a pale, raven-haired willow of a girl who has even less tolerance for fools than he does.
With her mother dead and no mention of a father, Lena lives with her Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons) in a mansion that is all antebellum on the outside with fashion-shoot-ready modern interiors. Generally clad in all white, ala Tom Wolfe, Macon projects the air of a genteel Southern aristocrat yet when provoked (which is often) he turns into a bile-spewing sidewinder. Recalling his Oscar-winning turn as the slippery Claus von Bulow in "Reversal of Fortune," Irons takes to the role like a duck to water.
To call what Irons does as scenery-chewing would be accurate in any other instance but when sharing screen space with Emma Thompson as the dual Sarfine/Mrs. Lincoln, he comes off as downright comatose. Few can do over-the-top as well as Thompson and by playing two diametrically opposed characters, she reminds us over her immense versatility, depth and range. Not very often cast as a villain, Thompson -- in remarkable shape for a woman of 53 -- milks it for every last drop but in the process also makes her mostly younger cast mates look like rank amateurs.
Instead of going the route of the same type of character-driven narrative found in "Twilight" and "Warm Bodies," LaGravenese channels "Beetlejuice" era Tim Burton and overloads the production with garish sets and excessive special-effects action scenes. This (and lots of bodice-ripping cleavage) will go far in keeping dragged-in boyfriends happy for a while but is more of a distraction than an enhancement.
As a couple, Ethan and Lena are light years better than Edward and Bella from "Twilight" and purely by comic default are far more interesting to watch. Because this is the first installment of a tentative planned trilogy, each of the two leads aren't fully fleshed out and in a manner akin to other multi-picture affairs, "Beautiful Creatures" ends with a whimper of a cliffhanger.
Whether the other two other books in the series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl ever get the green light will depend entirely on this weekend's box office take. If there are enough swoon-ready teens with a need to fill the void left in the wake of the final "Twilight," "Beautiful Creatures" has a chance to live on. Given it will be competing with two other major releases and the juggernaut that is "Identity Thief," it's going to need something far more than a wing and a prayer to make it. It's going to require the same kind of witch's generated hocus-pocus displayed in the movie itself. (Warner Bros.)