Around the halfway point of Harald Zwart’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, after mountains of convoluted plot details have piled up, you may seriously wonder whether or not the Wayans brothers were consulted during production. While it’s cut from the same young-adult cloth as Twilight and The Hunger Games, this fantasy, based on book one of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, plays like a loony catch-all of its predecessors’ creatures and couplings, to the extent that it borders on a spoof. When it finally seems to throw caution to the wind and surrender to its onslaught of absurdities, it’s as if the film is knowingly poking fun at the tropes of its genre, in a way that, if the Wayanses were indeed pulling the strings, would warrant use of the lampoon-y title Young Adult Movie.
The film is about “Shadowhunters,” angel-human hybrids who maintain some sort of global balance, but it also crams in vampires, werewolves, warlocks, and fairies (zombies, one character hilariously observes, “don’t exist”). And rather than settling on the typical who-will-she-choose love triangle, City of Bones cranks up the gooey romantic volume, introducing a loaded quadrangle that includes a gay character, and, eventually, even the possibility of incest. Once teen heroine Clary (Lily Collins) is being showered by sprinklers while kissing Shadowhunter Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), then arguing with Jace and lovelorn geek Simon (Robert Sheehan) about who’ll be sharing her bed, it seems impossible that the movie doesn’t have its tongue at least partially planted in its cheek.
As it happens, this kooky, apparent self-awareness proves vital, as it greatly eases the pain of sitting through one more implausible, CGI-filled freak show. The sheer speed with which City of Bones moves from point to harebrained point has its own surreal humor, and if you’re not down with the film’s out-of-nowhere note that Bach was a Shadowhunter too (as proven by an oil painting that shows the composer bearing telltale tattoos), perhaps you’ll dig its unabashed parading of gorgeous, model-esque males, which only ups an already overt wealth of homoeroticism. Beyond the cut-from-marble Adonis-ness of Jace, whom Bower exquisitely plays as someone whose comic relief is uncommonly sophisticated, there’s gay Shadowhunter Alec (Kevin Zegers); bisexual, booty-short-rocking warlock Magnus (Godfrey Gao); and a small army of burly bears—or rather, wolves—who look like they may have just stomped out of a leather bar. Too abundant to be ignored, yet too innocuous to potentially offend, these particular bits simply comprise a notable part of the film’s all-but-the-kitchen-sink design.
Also reveling in dressing Shadowhunter-in-training Clary in hooker garb, and veering off to devote an alarming amount of energy to exploring another character’s random agoraphobia, City of Bones blasts by for a while as an odd and busy slice of highly watchable garbage. But none of this fully amends the toll the movie ultimately takes on the viewer, who still has to contend with a great deal of shoddy filmmaking. This is one of those actioners that looks to have been shot and edited during an earthquake, its fight scenes and chase sequences as choppy as they are incoherent (good luck keeping track of who’s slaying whom). And while Jace is shown doing some groovy tricks with a portal made out of water, the visual effect is rather—to employ the label given to humans in this world—“mundane.”
The final thing worth mentioning is the way City of Bones enjoys reimagining New York, where its all-inclusive, beastly, pansexual madness unfolds. A Brooklyn native, Clary starts out doing typical, Hollywood-ized Brooklyn things, like sipping lattes at poetry readings. But once she—and only she—starts seeing symbols, murders, and hooded warriors, she’s introduced to a Gotham counter-culture that makes Williamsburg hipsters look demure by comparison. Clary can also see the Shadowhunters’ baroque, castle-like headquarters, which actually occupies a space that, from the general public’s perception, is an anonymous, run-down high-rise (Simon calls it a “dump,” and the film fleetingly toys with the notion of what qualifies as beautiful in the world’s most famous metropolis). But while it’s a kick to take in all the New York-centric components, like a crack about mystical “Downworlders” living below 14th Street, they, too, wind up lost in a doomed mix. However conscious it may be of its madcap nature, City of Bones still leaves you feeling like someone who just got off the Cyclone at Coney Island: jerked and rattled to the point of loopy bewilderment.