EXPECTATIONS: Based on the bestselling novel described as "extraordinary" by people who apparently know what they're talking about, The Book Thief finds itself amidst that most mockable of film categories: Oscar Bait. Nothing screams "NOMINATE ME" quite as loudly as a book adaptation featuring Geoffrey Rush and a gaggle of evil, faceless Nazis. Actually, that's not really even a joke. The Academy eats this stuff up for breakfast. I really hope this film has something more to offer than the world's most cloyingly precious nomination reel.
REALITY: There is something kind of incredible about The Book Thief. Not it's stirring performances or the characters' inspirational defiance in the face of pure evil. No, The Book Thief is a film that opens remarkably strong and then begins finding new ways to disappoint its audience every minute for the next two hours. After the implied tragedy that sets the whole story in motion, this film soft-pedals every last thing to make sure we don't feel too bad about Nazis murdering millions and ruining a nation.
Stop reading so loud, I'm trying to sleep.
The film takes place in Nazi Germany, where young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is sent to live with foster parents Rosa (Emily Watson) and Hans (Geoffrey Rush) after the Nazis send her mother away for being a communist. With Hans' help, Liesel learns how to read; first a gravedigger's handbook, and then onto books more appropriate for a nine-year-old girl, like Mein Kampf and H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man. When Hans takes in and hides a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer), Liesel struggles to keep the secret from her fellow schoolkids. Will her friend Rudy (Nico Liersch) rat them out? Or will the school bully punch everything and then rat them out? Or will everything turn out fine for everyone, because this is a feel-good picture for the whole family?
There are three key facts I wish I had known going into The Book Thief that might have colored my perception of it for the better. Not knowing any of these things ahead of time left me in a mental state constantly fluctuating between sheer boredom and utter bewilderment. And since my job here is to inform you lovely readers, I'm going to guide you through these three facts using modern journalism's most efficient information dispenser: A Listicle!
Three Unadvertised Facts That Will Fundamentally Alter Your Opinion of The Book Thief
1) The Book Thief is based on a novel. This much, we already knew. What we didn't know was that Markus Zusak's original novel is apparently of the Young Adult variety. This provides a handy excuse for films such as How I Live Now to be moody and romantic without undercutting its subject matter. With this film, however, it simply means we never have to worry about seeing the worst of Hitler's atrocities. We watch as people are ripped away from their families and piles of H.G. Wells books are incinerated, but the lion's share of the film's violence is shrugged off as simply things that happen during a war. There's no sense of ultimate danger, because this is a story about children who can't yet comprehend the horrible things happening in their own town. The blissfully ignorant mind of a child is inspiring, isn't it? That Young Adult label also explains...
2) The Book Thief's humorous streak. The film has a sense of humor which can best be described as jet-black slapstick. I appreciate a film that can deflate everything repulsive about the Third Reich, but The Book Thief dispenses with comic relief at awkward, inappropriate moments. Imagine a child launching into a Monty Python bit in the middle of a church service. It would be one thing if the humor came in the form of Hans doing silly things to make Liesel smile. He does a bit of that, but it's downplayed in favor of gags intended for the audience, like the scene in which Liesel and Max take turns pretending to be Hitler's mother. It's like The Day The Clown Cried, except the movie goofs around to keep us from falling asleep.
Get out of here, kid. Nobody cares about soccer.3) This story is narrated by Death. His identity is not made clear until later on, when the film decides it's completely given up on its own plot, but the book puts it right there on front street. Even more baffling is the fact that Death narrates this story like he thinks he's Douglas Adams. (The first line of the film: "One small fact: You are going to die. ...Don't panic. It doesn't seem to help.") Or alternatively, there's the possibility that Douglas Adams actually is the angel of death. If that part is true, then the universe is more cosmically fucked-up than I thought.
Either way, the brief narration provides the film an easy out when it comes time to wrap things up. Why bother having your main characters triumph against fascism when you can simply pull a Six Feet Under and cut right to the credits?
The cast tries their hardest to make this story palatable. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, in particular, are delightful. She endures his flights of fancy while he takes delight in her hard-nosed work ethic; he plays Christmas carols on the accordion while she stares daggers at him from across the room. These are characters that could carry a film all on their own, yet too often they're shunted to the sidelines so that Liesel can walk around town wondering why Nazis are so mean.
All of The Book Thief's eccentricities ultimately ruin what otherwise might have been a touching little film. The historical backdrop is well-defined, but rendered toothless to avoid traumatizing younger viewers, and the Death angle changes the film's purpose mere moments from the end credits. Too many proverbial plates are spinning at once in this film, and they all wind up crashing to the floor until all we're left with is a Hallmark card that says "Life is precious, don't waste it."
Thanks a lot.
|Rush and Watson||10/10|
|Narration by Death||-5/10|
|Points I Would Have Awarded The Film If William Sadler Had Reprised His Role from Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey||At Least Twenty (0/10)|
MINORITY REPORT: There is nothing more precious and magical than the atrocities committed by the German army in the years of 1933 and 1945. It just warms my heart whenever I think of it and to be honest, I don't think there's anything more enjoyable that you could ever make a film or really any work of fiction about. - Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison
The Remains of Bidet (James Ivory, 1993)
We might find we have more in common than we think if we just stop fighting long enough to combine our bodies into a singular organism.
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