Hey, folks. Michael Cusumano here fresh from having Jeff Bridges impart the wonders of humanity directly into my brain.
It’s an amusing irony that Phillip Noyce’s film of Lois Lowry’s beloved middle-school staple The Giver feels like an afterthought following the recent glut of Young Adult adaptations. It was Lowry’s vision of dystopia which helped launch the army of teenage Chosen Ones currently clogging multiplexes nationwide. Now, not only is The Giver late to the party, but the richly imagined worlds of Lowry’s literary descendants have left her story feeling undercooked. I can’t imagine teenage audiences who have spent the past few years steeped in the sprawling, detailed insanity of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books will be rapt with attention watching Jeff Bridges shambling around his library, triggering the occasional lame stock footage montage meant to portray humanity in all its myriad wonders.
Noyce’s film version might have had a fighting shot if it had tapped into the elemental power of the story’s spare allegory, but alas, even with a plotline of this simplicity, The Giver can’t make the pieces fit. The logic begins to fall apart right from the opening narration. We are told that this is a society where all the highs and lows of humanity have been wiped away and people live in a serene state of medicated blankness. Everyone strolls around grinning like they lost a fight with a body snatcher. We meet our hero Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, a monument to blandness) on the day of the great Ceremony where he and his two equally personality-free friends are to receive their lifetime job assignments. Yet no sooner does the narration tell us that this world is free from competition and envy than we hear the trio chatting about how they hope they get a great job, crossing their fingers that they don’t get put on the janitorial staff. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t this indicate that they are A) competitive and B) envious.
It will become a running theme of the film with the screenplay continually contradicting itself or fudging the rules when it reaches the belated conclusion that a film populated by emotionless automatons would be boring.
What, for example, am I to make of the character of The Giver played by Jeff Bridges. At The Ceremony, Jonas is shocked to be given the rare and important job of being the Receiver, meaning he will travel to a house overlooking a cliff on the edge of society and be trained by The Giver on how to be a receptacle for all the memories of past civilization. This means everything from the glories of music to the horrors of war. Naturally, such powerful concepts are a threat to orderly society, so the Receiver is to be the one-man quarantine for these dangerous ideas.
This is all well and good, except the film never explains why a society that worships orderly sameness would want to preserve all these dangerous memories in the first place. Just chuck the books over the edge of the cliff into the bottomless pit and it’s so long Mozart and Shakespeare and all the other rabble-rousers. It is suggested the reason for keeping the books is so The Receiver can provide wisdom and leadership, but come on. First off, the film never explores this idea and the Elders treat Bridges with undisguised contempt. Second, their answer to everything is the same: More order, more conformity. When exactly are they supposed to call on The Receiver to bust out some Thomas Aquinas and clear things up? By the time we learn there is a magical boundary, which if crossed by the Receiver will restore all the memories to society, one really has to questions the wisdom of isolating the two biggest free thinkers in the whole country in a cottage with a blueprint on how to bring down the government.
I’m being a nit-picky crank, I know. But my point isn’t to pick the movie apart; it’s to show how little heavy lifting the film has done to earn the ticket money of those who harbor affection for the source material. (I have not read the book and readily concede that this all probably hangs together much better on the page.)
That said, there are some things to admire here.
The polished look of the movie is a step up from the indifferent visuals we usually get with the would-be YA franchises, and the concept of having the film progress Pleasantville-style from black and white to color is nicely executed. Bridges is well cast as the Giver, if anyone can embody the idea of irrepressible messy humanity it’s him. Meryl Streep tries to give the Chief Elder some depth and shading but her attempts are at odds with a character that is supposed to be the champion of boring sameness. It sorta defeats the point of the movie when the villain who represents oppressive conformity is so much more interesting than the protagonist, who supposedly represents untamed humanity, but remains an indistinct cipher right to the end.
The Giver has a promising future with kids with a test in the morning who didn’t read the book and as an innocuous option for teachers who want to show a DVD to the class while they take a nap. The actual young adults who are taken with Lowry’s vision might find some fleeting pleasure in the film, even as they wonder why the hero’s age jumped from 12 to 16 and where the hell that motorcycle chase came from. By the time they’ve moved on to the advanced dystopias of Orwell and Huxley, they will have a nice chuckle when they think back to the time they mistook this movie for deep stuff.
As for yours truly, a crabby, cynical adult with no nostalgic feelings for the film to exploit, I thought The Giver had a cheeseball sincerity which makes it difficult to get angry at. How does one get his blood up over a film where the hero wonders about this warm feeling he can't explain, to which Bridge beams. "Why that? That was love." It’s thinly imagined, logically challenged and devoid of suspense, but it's heart is in the right place and slamming it feels like trashing the diorama made in the book’s honor by an enthusiastic 7th grader. I don’t have the heart flunk it but I do have the strong urge to scribble on it red Sharpie: “Try harder next time! :(”
1. A holographic Meryl Streep pops into your living room at random times to monitor your every move and issue vague threats. This is…
D) All of the Above
2. Lately Jeff Bridges’s voice sounds like that of a disheveled hobo who has misplaced his false teeth. My theory is that he won so much praise for playing back-to-back drunks in Crazy Heart and True Grit that he forgot how to turn it off and is now stuck with a permanent alcoholic slur. Am I right? Or what?
3. Everyone in the world of The Giver is repeatedly told to speak with “precision of language” which just so happens to sound exactly like the kind of crappy dialogue lazy screenwriters use to wedge in plot exposition. How convenient is that? Show your work.