Was Red Riding Hood masterminded by a cadre of particularly silly 11-year-olds undergoing withdrawal from Twilight? That’s the only excuse for a movie this dopey. David Johnson’s screenplay is amateurish and tone-deaf, and director Catherine Hardwicke, best known for the perfume-commercial tone of that first Twilight movie and Thirteen, must have actively encouraged her fleet of able supporting actors to embarrass themselves. Julie Christie, Virginia Madsen, Lukas Haas and Gary Oldman couldn’t have reached these depths on their own. The best performance in this movie is by a garment — the hooded red cape itself — which swirls and billows fetchingly in the snow.
It no longer belongs to a little girl because, duh, that wouldn’t be sexy at all. The 21st century Red Riding Hood is Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), the prettiest minx in the medieval village of Daggerhorn. In the woods outside the village dwells a werewolf who has long terrorized the place. Correction: for 20 years, the werewolf has happily gobbled up their sacrificial offerings of cute lambs and baby pigs, but suddenly is no longer content with livestock. Just as the story begins, it has slain Valerie’s younger, plainer sister, Lucie, and left her in a hayfield. Not to downplay the tragedy, but one can’t help noticing that Lucie’s corpse, no entrails out of place, looks pretty good for someone who collided with a werewolf.
Speaking of downplaying the tragedy, Seyfried’s enormous my-what-big-eyes-you-have peepers moisten for a scene or two, but Lucie’s death doesn’t distract her for long. Just like Twilight‘s Bella, she has a complicated love life to worry about. She’s crazy about snarly woodsman Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) but her mother (Madsen) has just arranged for her to marry a rich blacksmith named Henry (Max Irons). Peter isn’t happy about that, so the night after Lucie’s untimely demise, he tries to make her jealous by dancing with another girl, whereupon Valerie grabs her girlfriend for a display of Sapphic dirty dancing. Mourning, in this village, apparently takes the tone of Gossip Girl at the Renaissance fair.
Oldman plays a man of the cloth — he’s known as Father Solomon — who has some expertise in werewolf hunting. His methods include raising the paranoia level of everyone in the village while giving them lessons in the ways of the werewolf. “You all know what the blood moon means,” he says to a crowd of Daggerhornians. They stare back at him blankly. “They have no idea,” he says in disgust. This might seem uncharitable, but Father Solomon’s disgust is not without merit; if you’re going to be terrorized into constantly sacrificing your cuddliest livestock, shouldn’t you have some grasp of the beast’s schedule?
Although he’s a reliable chewer of scenery, Oldman is thwarted here by the sheer number of thespians already gnawing on the log cabins of Daggerhorn, including Christie, who plays Valerie’s grandmother. The role is so obviously ornamental — Christie rocks a sky blue quasi-dirndl and the low-slung hip belt that seems to be de rigueur in Daggerhorn — that I spent the entire movie convinced she was Lauren Hutton, trotted out from the J. Crew catalog to play the hot granny. Nothing about Christie’s performance argued otherwise, and this is the perspective of someone who has long cherished her in movies from McCabe & Mrs. Miller right through Away from Her, the film that earned her most recent Oscar nomination.
Grandma Christie has a motto: “All sorrows are less with bread.” I tittered along with the preview audience every time it came up, but decided to look upon it as a coded public-service message to the young girls who will likely see this film: “Carbs are good; don’t starve yourselves!” There was plenty of time to entertain such ridiculous notions because the movie, werewolves and all, is too absurd to be dramatically engaging. Besides the beast’s human identity, the narrative’s other question mark, the matter of Henry vs. Peter, is about as suspenseful as Jacob vs. Edward. Or look at it this way: Henry gives Valerie a pretty handmade bracelet, while Peter tosses her down on the hay and plays with the laces on her bodice. Who would you choose?
The level at which Red Riding Hood borrows from Twilight is not just limited to the dueling suitors and the werewolf component (oversized and able to move at lightning speed, this wolf would fit right in with Jacob’s crowd). The actor who plays Valerie’s father, Billy Burke, even plays Bella’s dad in the Twilight series. And Valerie has a special bond with the creature: she can talk to it, which causes her to worry about her own nature. “Maybe there was something dark inside me,” she speculates, shortly after Father Solomon commands her to put on her “harlot’s robe” and prepare to be offered up to the wolf. Oh, Red, what purple prose you’ve been given.