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'The Giver' is a brain drain

*1/2 (out of four)

For anyone who didn’t read Lois Lowry’s novel “The Giver” in junior high (that includes me), the big-screen adaptation will make you much more upset with “Divergent.” What a freakin’ ripoff that story is. Sorry. I’m glad it’s set in Chicago, and the movie was OK. But “The Giver” was published in 1993 and also showcases a near-futuristic dystopia in which individuality has been eliminated, young adults are assigned jobs and the hero goes through rigorous training, overseen by a powerful leader. Though online commenters indicate the book doesn’t have nearly as much violence or a big villain.

Unfortunately, on screen “The Giver” is even worse than “Divergent.” Like the latter story’s Tris, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites of “Maleficent”) is the only kid in town who doesn’t know his purpose. He also experiences an unexpected result from his professional assignment ceremony when the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) selects him as the next Receiver of Memory. This means extensive sessions of holding hands with The Giver (Jeff Bridges), absorbing the man’s memories of colors and dancing and sleds and a montage of human existence Jonas mustn’t discuss with anyone.

Jonas almost immediately shows he can’t be trusted. Yet despite having plenty of surveillance capabilities, Chief Elder waits a long time to try to prevent this kid from unraveling a social structure that’s pretty easy to loosen.

Jonas’ role is to use knowledge of the past, which no one else possesses, to guide others. It seems like if someone were to come up with the idea of war on their own, hearing one guy explain its evils wouldn’t stop them. Also: The script commits sincerely to questionable logic and constant earnestness like debating feelings vs. emotions and Jonas saying, “If you can’t feel, what’s the point?” He initially asks his mentor, “If I’m the receiver, what does that make you?” to which Bridges’ character should say, “Sheesh, I thought you were supposed to be smart.”

It’s not the source material’s fault that the movie, co-starring Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift (!), shares elements with “The Truman Show,” “Pleasantville,” “Starship Troopers” or the awful “The Host.” Thwaites (25) and Odeya Rush (17!), as Jonas’ friend Fiona, are good, and notions of lost innocence and the power of knowledge always resonate a little. However, director Phillip Noyce (“Salt”) reaches ponderous and hits cruise control as the movie sometimes recalls 2006’s little-seen “Peaceful Warrior,” in which Nick Nolte served as a grumbling adviser. Don’t see that, or this.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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