The Book Thief (20th Century Fox, PG-13)

Book-Thief 75I won’t feel bad when it is nominated for few to no Oscars, but I will feel bad if it bombs entirely.

Book-Thief 500

Those who might confuse the Brian Percival film The Book Thief with a rollicking tale of Abbie Hoffman will be in for a shock — this is a fairly typical year-end Oscar bait type of movie about the Holocaust and is not about the shoplifting advocate yippie.

Of course, The Book Thief is an adaptation of the already much-beloved YA novel of the same name by Markus Zusak, which novel is narrated by Death and whose main character is a blond-haired, blue-eyed young girl named Liesel, who, despite not being Jewish, finds her life negatively affected (to say the least) by the Nazis all the same.

One of the tricks about the movie The Book Thief is that despite hitting all of the usual notes for the type of conspicuous Oscar fodder I and a lot of other people come to detest, it is actually a pretty good film and also one unlikely to be nominated for much in the way of year end awards (if only because 2013 has been a particularly strong year for movies, and there’s a lot of competition). The movie is flawed and looks like it’s going to suck for the first half-hour or so, but once it finds its footing and introduces its best characters, it becomes a serviceable enough movie that, if nothing else, will give you the impression that the novel it’s based on is probably really good.

Once some off-putting introductory stuff is dispensed with — while having Death as your narrator was probably pretty neat in the book, here, in the tones of actor Roger Allam, it just seems forced and cumbersome — we find Liesel (relative newcomer Sophie Nlisse, who looks like Sally Draper and is a real find) being delivered to her adoptive parents, the loveable Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and stern Rosa (Emily Watson). Hans teaches the previously illiterate Liesel how to read, and meanwhile she befriends an earnest local boy named Rudy (an uneven Nico Liersch, perhaps the only weak link in the acting ensemble). The heart of the movie arrives when Max (Ben Schnetzer), the son of a Jewish friend to whom Hans is indebted, shows up at their door, and the family has to hide Max in the basement.

For reasons I’m having trouble fathoming, The Book Thief was originally slated for a wide release on Nov. 8, but at the last minute Fox decided to only put it in limited release on the 8th, but then taking it wide beginning Nov. 22. This puts it head-to-head against Catching Fire, which is a boneheaded move for just about any movie, but probably particularly so for a movie adapted from a popular young adult novel. And it’s a shame, too, as like I said, The Book Thief is at least a slightly-above-average and effective year-end type of drama; I won’t feel bad when it is nominated for few to no Oscars, but I will feel bad if it bombs entirely. | Pete Timmermann

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