“The Giver” is now playing at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. PG-13, 1:27, two stars out of four.
Imagine living in a place with no color, no emotion, no wildness, where everyone is polite, dresses the same way and thinks the same way.
But enough about Waukesha.
“The Giver” is based on Lois Lowry’s popular young-adult novel, which served as the template for “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” and a lot of other dystopian young-adult fiction where “parents just don’t understand” gets taken to Orwellian levels. My oldest daughter loves the book, but what may seem allegorical and evocative in print is hard to translate effectively onto the big screen.
Jonas (Brendon Thtwaites) is a teenage boy living in a perfect world of conformity, where everyone is content, everyone gets a job assigned by the community elders, and words like “love” and “family” have become obsolete. (“Precision of language,” Jonas’ mother (Katie Holmes) admonishes gently when Jonas uses them.) Director Phillip Noyce makes this world literally colorless, shooting in black-and-white, although most cinephiles will agree that many of their most passionate experiences at the movies were with black-and-white movies.
Jonas is tasked to be the Receiver of Memory, the only one in the community who will know what life was like before this perfect utopia. So, every day, he goes to visit the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges), who clues him in via telepathy to the messy, emotional, colorful life that existed long ago. (This, unfortunately, is relayed by montages that wouldn’t look out of place in an AT&T commercial).
Jonas is attracted to this old world, and as he stops taking the daily injections that suppress his emotions, color starts slowly bleeding back into the world he once knew. Eventually — okay, almost instantly — we realize the old Receiver has an ulterior motive, to smash the new order with Jonas’ help and bring the old ways back.
There’s a lot of potential here — now I want to borrow my daughter’s copy of the book — but the film feels as watered-down and lifeless as the society it depicts. “The Giver” is too interested in trying to connect itself to the “Hunger Games” crowd — especially in a silly third act that sacrifices ideas for things like a dirt bike chase — to approach its ideas with anything resembling sublety or potency.
The one exception is Bridges, who gives a lovely, tortured performance as the lonely old Receiver, carrying the burden of an entire society on his shoulders. But Meryl Streep is also in this movie — Meryl Streep! — as the maternally menacing leader of the community, and mostly even she can’t rise above the by-the-numbers script.
With its heavyweight cast and deeper themes, plus a talented director in Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger”), “The Giver” had a real chance to break beyond its target demographic and really resonate with a wider audience. Instead, it felt like at the start of every scene I was getting one of those emotion-suppressing injections.