'The Book Thief' tries to escape its Oscar bait trappings

Posted by · 4:06 pm · November 8th, 2013


20th Century Fox’s “The Book Thief” opens in limited release today and it’s landed with something of a thud. Reviews are very mixed (and that might be kind) and there’s little pre-release buzz about the film. That being said, this was always a tough sell for Fox. The film’s biggest names are Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, the movie did not make a splash at any of the major fall festivals (it debuted at Mill Valley) and feels more like an Oscar bait movie than it probably should, being based on a popular novel by Markus Zusak set in Germany during WWII. That period is almost the definition of an Oscar bait movie these days.

“Thief” is based on stories Zusak’s relatives told him about living in Germany during the war, but not anyone’s specific tale. Once you find that out it makes the movie almost feel like a cheat even though that was never Zusak’s intent and is the palpable difference between reading a novel and a cinematic experience. The story begins with a young girl, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), assigned to the home of a poor-to-middle class family after her mother is deemed a communist and, we assume, sent to a camp or exile (her fate is never revealed). Liesel’s new mother is stern but with a secret heart of gold (Watson) and the father is the polar opposite: a friendly and comforting figure just trying to get through the bad times. Books are burned, the family shelters a young Jewish man for two years in their basement, Liesel finds a friend in the wife of the most powerful Nazi in town, the town gets bombed and Liesel falls in love with the adorable young Nazi next door named Rudy. And, like clockwork, tragedy strikes in the film’s third act. Storylines that all sound a tad familiar, no?

Director Brian Percival, a “Downton Abbey” vet, benefits from the pro performances of Watson and Rush and gets the most out of the kids that he can. He also helped coax a rare non-Steven Spielberg score from John Williams (the film’s one real chance for an Oscar nod), which helps move the story immensely. But overall, the movie’s just too pat. It can’t escape a lack of authenticity, which ultimately makes it forgettable. And, much to the studio’s chagrin, it will be shocking if it turns into any sort of real awards season player.

Zusak and the novel have a fan base that 20th Century Fox is hoping will come out to support the picture. And making a small profit never hurts in Hollywood. Speaking to the cast, Percival and Zusak a few weeks ago, it was clear the spirit of the book was integral to what they were trying to capture on screen. You can watch our discussion in the video embedded at the top of this post.

“The Book Thief” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

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