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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Sept. 19, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Jeff Bridges and Brenton Thwaites star in "The Giver," now playing.

"The Giver" clumsily and coldly conforms to the YA adaptation norm


In 1993 – a time long before Katniss and Tris would've even been considered actual words, much less legitimate human names – author Lois Lowry published "The Giver." The dystopian novel went on to win the 1994 Newberry Award and would soon become a middle school literature class staple.

Around the same time, Jeff Bridges – the under-appreciated cult actor, not yet the beloved Oscar-winning actor – bought the rights to the award-winning book in the hopes of turning Lowry's vividly visual story into a film, with his father Lloyd in the title role. The letters "YA" didn't automatically summon cartoon dollar signs to studio execs' eyes like they do today, however, so plans for a movie went nowhere. The closest Bridges' original hopes and dreams for the book came to finding on-screen life was a family-made home video, apparently tucked away in a garage somewhere.

About 20 years later, Bridges has finally gotten "The Giver" to the big screen, and for a project with years of passion clearly behind it, the final result is bafflingly inert, as though the film itself has been sampling the characters' daily emotional sedation. I guess that's one of the side effects of showing up late to the party, wearing a dress that it's been saving for just the right moment for so long that it's gone from original and chic to overdone and cliché. At least black and white is always a trendy color combination.

Brenton Thwaites ("Oculus," "Maleficent") plays Jonas – aged up four years from the novel, from 12 to 16 – an anxious young lad in a rule-bound, colorless future utopia, located on a plateau surrounded by clouds. When it comes time to receive his occupational assignment, he is given one of the community's most important roles: the Receiver of Memory.

Under the guidance of the old Receiver (Bridges), the position requires him to take on the memories of the past – all of the color, beauty, happiness, sadness, pain, music and diverse experiences of life that were forfeited and forgotten by the entire population generations ago for the sake of safe Sameness – in the hopes of providing wisdom for the present and future.

After having his mind opened by the memories to the disturbing conformity and coldness of society, Jonas soon becomes a kind of revolutionary, desperate to bring color, emotion and everything else lost over time back to the world. The chilly Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), however, would prefer otherwise.

In an ironic twist of fate, the social ills "The Giver" attempts to rally against – conformity and emotional coldness – are exactly the film's biggest glaring weaknesses.

Though the source material easily outdates its popular current blockbuster YA rivals, the movie itself feels like it's the one playing follow the leader, namely with "Divergent." While Lowry spends almost one-third of her book carefully constructing her unique utopian world before Jonas even meets the Giver, director Phillip Noyce rushes through the world-building, lazily letting a lot of clunky voiceover – at early on, some even clunkier on-screen text reiterating what's already being spoken – do his work for him.

It could've been an opportunity to give the film some personality. Instead, it just feels like another copy. The job assignment ceremony, Streep's expanded role as an order-insistent matriarch who goes sinister, the teen angst mixed with romance and even a speeding through the city scene (with sledding on trays replacing zip lining) all play like replays from Veronica Roth's franchise – and that was already a fairly familiar replay of the "Hunger Games" format. Each one plays like an echo, the duplicates' volume and impact weakening as they trail further on.

The screenplay, from Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, even throws some extra action involving planes near the end in order to raise the drama and fall more in line with its more action-oriented brethren. The sequence, however, feels just as transparently tacked on as it is, without the benefit of any extra excitement.

"The Giver" has bigger problems than simply meaningless action scenes – namely that, for a movie focused so much on the importance of emotions, it elicits close to none. Noyce and the script give the story the same flat treatment as the world-building, rushing through so nothing leaves much of an impact. Even the memories, though bright and crisp swatches of color and movement (that is, when Noyce doesn't over direct them with excessive camera effects), lack a feeling of excitement or discovery.

When it's not loading up on voiceover to the level of an audiobook, Mitnick and Weide's dialogue is still stiff and nuance-free. Other than the Chief Elder's statement that "When people have the right to choose, they choose wrong," the debate between the perils of freedom versus the perils of conformity, for instance, is left disappointingly untouched.

The performances struggle to make much more of the script. Over the course of four movies this year, Thwaites has proven to have the screen presence of oxygen: You know he's there, but damned if I can notice it. As Jonas' best friends, Odeya Rush and Cameron Monaghan fair little better, and Katie Holmes – given seemingly only one repeated line, a stern "Precision of language!", as Jonas' mom – seems off. Even if the stiltedness is intentional, the actors struggle to make their rigidity compelling.

Only the seasoned veterans Streep and Bridges make things somewhat interesting – especially the latter, who survives some awkwardly blank reaction shots and some miscasting (he never seems as weary as the Giver should, especially from Lowry's descriptions) thanks to his usual dry, sleepy wit.

Yet despite having several, potentially fatal flaws (so, so many flaws), I have a hard time completely dismissing "The Giver." For better or worse, the movie's lodged itself into my brain.

Maybe it's some of Noyce's visual flourishes, like the Giver's window over the clouds, a dark spiral-lit hallway or simply the black and white imagery. It's a little muddy here, but it's one of the few elements that certainly stands out. Combined with the general off-kilter vibe – whether intentionally or unintentionally crafted – the movie has the feel of a "Twilight Zone" episode (a half-hearted one, to be fair).

Maybe even just the Sparknotes version of Lowry's story has the power to evoke – even if it's just evoking my personal memory of reading the book in fifth grade. After all, there are just enough fleeting glimpses of an intriguing movie – mostly from the original text – to almost convince me that it is one.

Whatever the case, I didn't have a miserable time watching "The Giver" (can't wait to see that quote on the DVD art), even if I'm quite positive the best, most original and most passionate cinematic telling of the story is probably still sitting in the Bridges' garage.



Theaters and showtimes for The Giver
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