Review: ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part I’ is beautiful but hard to watch

If you’re already onboard and dying to see “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part I,” then just go.  Enjoy the movie.  Have fun, and don’t bother reading this review.  There’s no point.  And I don’t begrudge you that at all.  If you love the books and you just want to see the film version of the story you already know, I’m sure you’ll be delighted, and if you haven’t liked the films so far, I don’t think this is going to radically change your mind.

For the rest of you, here’s what I wrote at the end of my review for “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse”:

I find myself in an interesting position as we face down the prospect of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” because I like and respect Bill Condon as a filmmaker.  I think he’s got good taste.  I think he’s made really strong films so far as a director.  I think he’s worth paying attention to, and I think he’s got a real taste for genre material that he hasn’t really indulged since he went mainstream.  He’s a smart guy, a writer first, and I think he knows how to shape difficult material for the screen.  And yet, I truly believe that “Twilight” is worthless as source material.  I do not believe there is a filmmaker alive who could manage the impossible feat of creating a faithful adaptation of Meyer’s book and also making a good movie.  Going into the home stretch, I think this is one of the worst blockbuster franchises of all time, inept from start to finish, and getting worse as they go.  There will come a time when we look back on these films and wonder what sort of mob insanity drove their success, and we will laugh and shake our heads and pretend they were never really that popular.

I will say this for the new film… you cannot accuse it of being all tease and no delivery (pun fully intended), which was one of the main dramatic issues with both “New Moon” and “Eclipse.”  This is a movie that begins with a big event, ends with a big event, and which expends tons of energy trying to convince us that every single thing that happens in-between is also a VERY BIG EVENT.  This is almost too rushed, a breakneck ride that doesn’t feel like any of the other films.

It is a gorgeous movie, technically speaking.  Beautifully directed by Bill Condon, impeccably shot by Guillermo Navarro, and cut with real sophistication by Virginia Katz, there is nothing about this that is sub-par.  It is a lush, effortless film.  It picks up in the middle of a moment, and it barrels headlong towards its big crazy “did I really just see all of that?” finale, and even when it comes to the little bonus post-credits moment, the film is so impatient to get there that it does it halfway through instead.  That energy makes it so compelling that it would be easy to get caught up in it and just go along with it and accept that whatever is being told this well must be worth telling that well.

It’s not, though.  With each film, with each book in the series, with each step closer to the resolution of one of the most grotesque romantic triangles in modern pop culture, this series reveals more and more about the particular pathology of Stephenie Meyer, as well as the tin-eared deficiencies of Melissa Rosenberg as a screenwriter.  The only reason this isn’t going to win my “Most Awkwardly Introduced Expository Dialogue” award this year is because Dustin (“The President’s wife…” “You mean MRS ROOSEVELT?!”) Lance Black’s “J. Edgar” is an uncommon gem.  It amazes me how arbitrary and silly the rules of Meyer’s world are, but it makes sense.  She isn’t writing genre fiction at all.  Perhaps the single funniest thing that I’ve seen happen as a result of the popularity of “Twilight” is that horror sites run stories on it now.  Horror sites.  “Twilight” is to real horror as cotton candy is to real food.  But only if the cotton candy is spun out of arsenic and crystal meth, because for the metaphor to be accurate, it needs to be something that is sickly sweet but genuine poison.

“Twilight” is so gross deep down on the subtextual level that it makes me unhappy to even dig into it, and less so with each film.  The Edward-Bella-Jacob triangle is so unhealthy, so poorly defined beyond anything except surface, that even if the films didn’t add the supernatural element, they’d be hard to take.  The problem is that Meyer doesn’t want to do genre, so we have to take her use of vampires and werewolves as metaphorical, and the moment you start to try to read the subtext of all the choices she makes, it gets disgusting.  Quickly.  We could talk about the idea of everyone fearing for Bella’s life, but her telling everyone, including Edward, that the bruises are okay because she knows he really loves her.  Really?  This is what we’re selling as romance now?  The entire series has confused the need to bone with “love,” and now that they’re finally able to consummate things because they’re married, the thing she has to worry about is that he will hurt her or even kill her.  Even though he loves her.

That’s icky enough, but then there’s also the pro-life/pro-choice stuff that she utterly fumbles as a writer and the pregnancy-as-body-horror stuff that she’s not smart enough to craft properly.  The way Condon stages the freaky pregnancy that threatens to destroy Bella in this film is better than how it’s written, and the visual strength of many of his choices again makes this feel like it’s better than it is, like we should be invested in what’s happening.  It’s just strange to see these strong choices of his undermined each and every time someone opens their mouth, and there are places during what should be the most harrowing part of the film that are laugh out loud ridiculous, which probably isn’t what was intended, and it’s not because of any choice made by the filmmakers.  It’s just material that is so ridiculous that I can’t imagine how anyone could do it any better than this.

It’s almost disconcerting to see a series that has been this slow-motion passive suddenly kick into overdrive in the last film, and as a result, characters don’t behave based on who they are, but rather because of what the film needs from them.  And because of this new sense of pace, suddenly every single scene is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED, which leads to my favorite scene in any movie this year, a hilariously insane sequence where a bunch of CGI werewolves think at each other vigorously.  Carter Burwell, a composer who has created some of my favorite film scores, scores this thing like he’s being tased.  It’s like having an entire symphony scream at you, and it’s this sustained crescendo that seems to assert itself no matter what’s going on.

The hardest thing to reconcile here is how skilled much of the filmcraft is, and how it’s in service of something I can barely stomach.  Take the wedding sequence, for example.  Condon manages to wring real suspense out of the reveal of Bella’s wedding dress, and he stages the entire opening with a loose, conversational energy that allows the cast to play a little bit.  Watch the way Anna Kendrick dig into the ten or twelve lines of dialogue they give her in the movie, and watch the way she feels like she’s starring in her own movie that just happens to intersect with this one for a few scenes.  Condon tries to do right by the cast in general, and the measure of his success hinges on how well Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Taylor Lautner do in the film.

Pattinson’s on cruise control at this point, waiting for the franchise to end so he can move on and figure out who he really is as an actor.  Kendrick jokingly refers to Edward as “The Hair” in her wedding speech, and that’s appropriate, since he’s basically doing a Zoolander here, letting the smolder do all the acting for him.  There’s so little difference between his angry smolder and his happy smolder that he seems to basically not react to anything.  And considering how batshit crazy everything’s gone in this film, it is decidedly odd to simply let the events wash over him with no emotional range to speak of.

Taylor Lautner, bless his heart, tries as hard as he can, and while it is masterful strategy to cast Booboo Stewart as Seth, Jacob’s sidekick in the film, since Stewart may actually be the worst actor I’ve seen in a professionally released movie, Lautner still seems to be struggling with the basics of human communication.  He is fighting an uphill battle, though, because the character he’s playing is the worst in a dense line-up of terrible characters.  Nothing Jacob does makes any sense, and he spends the entire movie in a pout all the way up to the moment when he has to play a scene opposite a newborn infant that may be the single most preposterous moment in any film this year.  It’s one emotional impulse after another passing as characterization, and the cumulative impact leaves me with the impression of someone who simply isn’t getting any better on camera.

The one person who genuinely seems to have flourished under Condon’s attention is Stewart, and I can honestly see her doing everything she can to invest this awful, rancid human being she’s playing with something like a recognizable soul.  I wish this material deserved the amount of work Stewart’s putting into things here, because she’s always shown great promise as a performer.  I think the level of scrutiny that comes with this series has not done her any favors, though, and she’s never really felt comfortable in any of the press she’s had to do for the films.  That’s fine for Bella Swan, though, because the only personality trait that she plays aside from mooning after boys is a sort of nervous discomfort with the world.  Like George Clooney during the early days of “E/R” and his first few films, Stewart has certain tics that seem like a crutch, habits that she’s going to have to leave behind at some point.  The end of this series would be a lovely time for her to shake all of this, and we’ll see what happens.

By the end of this film, after sitting through hilarious scenes of vampires karate kicking giant CGI werewolves and Bella’s diet of blood served in styrofoam cups and vampires with make-up so silly that I’m not sure how anyone is ever supposed to accept them as anything but vampires and lots of talk of imprinting, it genuinely felt like the story was over.  If the last shot of Bella in the film was the last shot in the series, it would feel like a story was finished, but there is a mid-credits sequence that is both the silliest, most overtly campy moment in the film and a reminder that Meyer still has several dangling plotlines that she’s going to have to wrap up in that last movie.  I really can’t fathom how intelligent grown adults managed to play this stuff straight long enough to capture it on film, and more than ever, I feel baffled that other people don’t recoil from these the same way I do.

Here’s the thing… I get that there are rabid fans of this series.  It’s looking like it’s going to make something like $140 million in its first weekend, which is crazy.  I think only the final “Harry Potter” film opened to the same level of expectation this year, and I’m sure people will compare the two in terms of impact.  The difference is that kids are going to keep discovering the Harry Potter series in a cycle that will play out over and over and over again, and I think each new set of readers are going to be charmed anew.  With “Twilight,” this is it.  This thing’s got a short shelf life, and it’s already curdling, and not all the talent in the world can disguise the smell.

“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part I” opens today, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.