Friday, December 08, 2017

November Criminals: Lost in Translation from Page to Screen

When a film is produced based a novel, but instead of official key art, there’s just a forlorn looking “soon to be a major motion picture” burst on the cover, you know the poor marketing department had some awkward meetings with sales. That’s the case with Sam Munson’s teen novel, but his publisher probably isn’t missing out on much. Fans of the book are likely to be vocally disappointed in Sacha Gervasi’s adaptation of November Criminals (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

In the book, Addison Schacht is a small-time pot dealer, who enjoys collecting Holocaust jokes, even though he is Jewish. In the film, he is a mopey sad sack, who is still grieving the sudden death of his mother. For kids who hadn’t read Catcher in the Rye, Schacht’s snarky, drug-addled voice really resonated, but it is entirely lost here. At least he still proceeds to investigate the murder of Kevin Broadus, a straight-laced African American classmate, whose death the lazy DC cops just write-off as a gang-related incident. However, as Schacht starts to snoop around, he realizes he maybe didn’t know Broadus as well as he thought he did. Of course, in the book, he would be the first to admit he hardly knew Broadus at all.

If you are going to remove everything edgy and distinctive about a book than why bother? You’re just setting everyone up for fan blowback. Instead, why not write a completely original, bland-as-cardboard screenplay about as shaggy dog high school student solving a friend’s murder? It is particularly disappointing that such an unremarkable time-waster was co-written by Steven Knight, the screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, as well as Locke and Redemption, which he also helmed. Surely, there must be a much more interesting draft sitting neglected on his hard-drive.

Ansel Elgort has been cast in some high-profile YA properties, so the media acts like he is a star, but he can’t prove it in November. Frankly, he seems to have the antidote for charisma. Spending extended time with whiny, grandstanding Schacht just becomes excruciatingly painful. Chloë Grace Moretz shows more signs of life as Phoebe, the platonic pal turned potential romantic interest, but there is not much she can do with the thinly sketched character. She too has been watered down from the source novel, in which she appears as “Digger,” Schacht’s friend-with-benefits. Ironically, the most fully developed performances come from David Strathairn as Schacht’s widowed father and Catherine Keener as Phoebe’s single mom Fiona.

The book uses Schacht’s college admittance essay as the narrative device framing the story, but in the film, he mails off his application in the first scene. Instead, the movie Schacht uses a video diary to express his feelings and establish the exposition, which is a nauseatingly tired cliché, post-Sex, Lies and Videotape. Still, you could argue it perfectly suits such a dull work of mediocrity. Not recommended, November Criminals opens today (12/8) in New York, at the Cinema Village.