Review: Shailene Woodley and Theo James Save A Laughable Mess in ‘Divergent’

By March 19, 2014
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There are horrendously unwatchable movies, and there are guilty pleasure flicks that we know are terrible but we can’t resist. There’s a lengthy list of reasons why Divergent should fall into the first category, but it’s pushed into the latter thanks to its two stars Shailene Woodley and Theo James.

Author Veronica Roth creates a world in her book (on which the film is based) that is far more imaginative and vivid than what director Neil Burger puts forth. Though set in a futuristic, dystopian Chicago, it has a laughable ’90s feel while ripping off aspects of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. The partially destroyed city is divided into five “factions”: Abnegation, where the selfless of the bunch reside; Amity, the peaceful group; Candor, who are known for their (you guessed it) candor; Erudite, the bookworm academic types; and Dauntless, the supposed badass military enforcers. Mostly they just run and climb on things while dressed like they’re going to a Muse concert.

Beatrice (Woodley) and her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) belong to Abnegation, but when the 16-year-old is forced – like her peers – to chose the faction she wants to join, she decides to go with Dauntless. Beatrice, who renames herself Tris, is drawn to the other factions because she’s a “Divergent,” someone that cannot fit into one specific category and is therefore a threat to the strictly divvied up lives people are forced to live. Why she chooses Dauntless isn’t exactly clear, but it does give us fight training montages and a love interest for our heroine in the brooding Four (James).

It also provides some semblance of conflict, where Tris must prove she belongs in Dauntless or be faction-less and thus live a miserable life of squalor. Later it’s discovered that those discovered to be Divergents will face death at the hands of Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Among those that must also fight their way up the ranks are Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and Al (Christian Madsen). Tris, who can barely throw a punch or shoot a gun, magically begins to become better at these things and therefore poses a threat to those around her.

That brings us to the the worst aspect of the film – the script. From the clunky exposition to the out of place lines, the dialogue is juvenile at best. For instance, when Four introduces himself, Christina quips, “One to three were taken?” (Yikes!) The script fails at portraying some of the more pivotal moments in the story, like major deaths. Beatrice and her brother’s (Ansel Elgort) decision to leave their family and each another behind and join another faction is treated like any other scene, when in fact, it’s setting up the entire plot. That lack of clarity extends to the construction of some of the supporting characters, like the resident jerk Peter (Miles Teller) and the pierce-happy Eric (Jai Courtney), who it seems was directed to walk around and “look threatening.”

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Now for the good. Woodley, who has done remarkable work in poignant dramas like The Descendants and last year’s The Spectacular Now, is one of the prime redeeming elements of the flick. The same can be said for James, who many will recognize from his role as the doomed Turk Mr. Pamuk on “Downton Abbey.” The British actor somehow manages to make most of the eye-rolling dialogue he’s been given. The key word being “most” since some of the lines (especially towards the end) are so wince-inducing, that not even a great British actor coming straight from the Abbey could make them work. Bearing a resemblance to Marlon Brando doesn’t hurt the actor’s watchability, and neither does the fact that his Four also has a dash of James Dean-esque rebelliousness. Like so many of the male leads in young adult novels, the character is also part Bronte hero.

Woodley and James’ chemistry is largely what keeps the film engaging and will likely be its saving grace when it comes to fans remaining invested. If, like Twilight, Divergent turns out to be a bad film that audiences still want more of, it’ll be because of the two leads. It can be argued that the fascination filmgoers had with Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart is what turned the teen vampire saga into a billion dollar-grossing franchise.

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Another Brit that breathes life into Divergent is Winslet, who manages to balance being venomous with a serene coldness. Unfortunately, she too struggles with the ridiculousness of her later scenes. A dash of reprieve from the ludicrousness can also be found in the form of “Scandal” star Goldwyn, who’s given little to do but is charismatic enough to draw us in.

As alarming statistics continue to shed light on the absence of female leads in Hollywood films and movies that appeal to both men and women alike, it’s commendable that Summit continues to churn out adaptation of stories with women at the center (The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games). Summit has already greenlit adaptations of Roth’s follow up books “Insurgent” and “Allegiant,” but as we witnessed with Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments, two films that failed to make bank, the studio is likely to stop at one installment if further adaptations aren’t warranted by the box office receipts.

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Justine Browning
Justine is a film and culture reporter whose work has appeared in USA Today, Indie Wire and The Huffington Post. She currently serves as an on-camera correspondent for MovieWeb and Cine Movie TV.