“Love,” explains the evil witch Sarafine (Emma Thompson) toward the end of Beautiful Creatures, “is a spell created by mortals to give women something they can have besides power.” This is, by a substantial margin, the most interesting line of dialogue in the film that isn’t a direct quote by Charles Bukowski, whose poetry collection You Get So Alone Sometimes That It Just Makes Sense is cited liberally throughout and whose poem “The Way It Is Now” inspired the film’s title (“I’ve lived with some gorgeous women/and I was so bewitched by those beautiful creatures that my eyebrows twitched”). Beautiful Creatures is based on a moderately successful YA novel, and it’s very probably the first and only moderately successful YA novel to refer in any way to the poet laureate of skid row—no real surprise given that the Venn diagram of his sensibility and the common tenor of YA fiction would be best represented as two circles that never overlap.
The excuse in this case is that the lusty adolescents at the heart of the story—a wayward small-town dreamer named Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) and the new girl in town with a mysterious past named Lena (Alice Englert)—are fierce intellectuals predisposed from ennui to gravitate toward literature’s perennial outliers. Thus Ethan, in addition to being boyishly handsome and incredibly popular, reads Vonnegut and Miller in his downtime, found early on with his nose buried in Slaughterhouse-Five and a pristine Tropic of Cancer paperback draped delicately over his desk. And Lena, though soon revealed to be a budding witch at the behest of an ancient curse, spends her less magical hours pouring over old volumes of Beat poetry, to which she happily introduces her wide-eyed new beau. The two bond over their shared affinity for rebels and outcasts whose work it’s obvious neither really appreciate or understand, and, though their love inevitably proves star-crossed, they quickly fall for one another hard, reciting their own brand of young-love clichés when they’re not busy butchering canonical classics.
Even early on, one might occasionally discern somewhere deep within Beautiful Creatures a modest comic fantasy urging to break free of the strained faux-intellectualism which surrounds it, the outline of an amusing conceit nearly too faint to make out. Thompson and Jeremy Irons, slumming without reason, seem to have signed up for a different film than the one they eventually appear in—a horror-comedy several degrees closer to a mid-’80s romp like Fright Night than to the modern tween trash Beautiful Creatures ultimately prefers to emulate. How else to account for Thompson and Irons lending their names and theatrical prestige to such dreck? The two ham it up in every frame, Thompson especially, as though the film were even remotely interested in fun rather than, say, falsely literate seriousness and maudlin high tragedy. And Ehrenreich and Englert, far from playing this material as the joke that it clearly is, strain for even a modicum of straightforward credibility, stumbling over themselves as they misquote Bukowski and otherwise talk shop about books.
It isn’t long, of course, before Beautiful Creatures veers sharply away from its romanticized literary influences and reference points to chart a new course toward the conventions of actual romance (and forced supernatural fantasy), but when it does one gets the sense at least that a weighty pretense has been dropped. That this utterly generic YA rom-com suggests not only fondness for but genuine kinship with Beat and postmodernist writers, artists for whom transgression was central to the creative process, is some seriously disingenuous bullshit, basically spitting in the face of a legacy founded on feelings of exclusion and social alienation. Cultural appropriation is nothing new, mind you, but there’s something particularly toxic about pillaging Anthony Burgess, emptying the reference of meaningful signification, and then simply dumping it into the middle of a mainstream teen fantasy whose very existence is predicated on the assumption that residual interest in Twilight will yield similarly juicy box-office returns for yet another carbon copy of the formula. One wonders if at any point during the production of Beautiful Creatures some hapless producer happened upon an on-set copy of You Get So Alone Sometimes and read the passage in which Bukowski lambasts those whose “words are unlived, unfurnished, untrue, and worse, so unfashionably dull,” because he might as well have been referring to the screenplay.