‘The Giver’: An inconsistent fable just going through the emotions
By RICHARD ROEPER Movie Columnist August 14, 2014 5:04PM
The Chief Elder (Meryl Streep, with Jeff Bridges) sets the rules in the future world of “The Giver.” | The Weinstein Co.
‘THE GIVER’ ★★
Jonas Brenton Thwaites
Chief Elder Meryl Streep
The Giver Jeff Bridges
Fiona Odeya Rush
The Weinstein Co. presents a film directed by Phillip Noyce and written by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, based on the book by Lois Lowry. Running time: 94 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.
Updated: August 15, 2014 2:21AM
For some 18 years, Jeff Bridges tried to make a movie out of “The Giver,” the beloved and critically acclaimed children’s novel by Lois Lowry that has sold 10 million copies and remains a fixture on middle-school reading lists.
It’s a tricky thing, adapting a fable about a supposedly utopian society where everyone is comfortably numb to such emotions as love, pain, suffering and loss. Even with the skilled veteran Phillip Noyce (“The Quiet American,” “Rabbit Proof Fence,” “Patriot Games”), some arresting visuals and a cast that includes Oscar winners Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep and even Taylor Swift as a SPOILER ALERT character, “The Giver” doesn’t seem entirely consistent about its own rules and races far too quickly to a thoroughly unsatisfactory conclusion that raises three questions for each answer it provides.
For a story designed to touch our emotions and remind us of all the wonderful highs and all the devastating lows of a life undiluted, it’s not nearly as involving as you might expect. Even the cute-baby-in-peril scenes kept me on the back of my seat.
In the movie version of “The Giver,” the protagonist Jonas is 16, about four years older than he is in the book. That opens the door to a teen romance, with Brenton Thwaites as Jonas and Odeya Rush as Fiona, a girl Jonas clearly loves even before his mind and heart are opened to such concepts.
Jonas, Fiona and their respective “family units” live in a world literally without color. It’s a tranquil, peaceful, Big Brother-esque world with very strict rules (“No lying”), a nightly curfew and a populace that willingly takes medication every morning, so as to … well, not feel very much about anything. It’s Med City.
Streep, sporting a long and rather ridiculous wig and speaking in robotic tones equal parts soothing and hair-raising, is the Chief Elder. She and the rest of the elders set the rules and keep a constant watch on the citizenry, looking out for any sign of individual expression or variances from the blissed-out norm. This is a world in which there is only one race, no animals, no murder, no love, no hatred, no senseless wars, no understanding of familial bond (and terrible fashion and architecture).
Bridges is the Giver, the sole keeper of the community’s collective historical memories. Even though the Giver himself was born long after the world turned on itself and this new society was born, he has a special ability to access the vast and rich and exhilarating and terrifying world that once existed: a world of color, and love, and family, and war, and suffering, and LIFE. As the appointed Giver, he gets to live in a nifty house at the very edge of the community, where he is free to grow a scraggly beard, read books and share his knowledge with the next apprentice — our guy Jonas.
And why would the elders encourage this whole Giver thing? As the Giver explains it, even in this “perfect” world, problems sometimes arise, and he can counsel them by tapping into all those past mistakes made by humans back in the day.
OK. But the Giver also gets to see in color, and he has access to lots of weddings and music festivals and sailing footage and images of young people kissing, and he transfers all that data to Jonas as well.
These scenes should blow us away. They don’t. Also, we understand why Jonas would want to figure out a way to bring the old world back — but the obstacles he faces aren’t all that daunting. The Chief Elder has a few tricks up her sleeve, but (SPOILER ALERT!) the other dozen or so elders and the police force that suddenly surfaces are no match for this kid and his friends.
Swift has an extended cameo as a former protégé of the Giver. It’s just kind of weird. Katie Holmes strikes a suitably creepy tone as Jonas’ “mother,” who heads the Justice Department and is a strict follower of the rules, even if it means turning against Jonas. Alexander Skarsgard is “Father,” a more sympathetic figure until we learn a little bit more about his real job.
Neither Bridges nor Streep is likely to include footage from this film in any Lifetime Achievement retrospective. Of course they’re solid. Streep does some wonderful things with just her eyes late in the story. Bridges scores a few laughs, but he’s saddled with a lot of corny dialogue.
Odeya Rush as Fiona shows star potential. Thwaites is better at gazing lovingly at Rush than he is at playing an action hero. Even when he’s evading capture and weathering elements and risking everything, he looks like he just got his eyebrows plucked after a facial.
This is a film with its heart in the right place. It just never touched the right place in my heart.