Hollywood's second foray into the Twilight zone features enough fantasy and romance to satisfy most hardcore devotees of Stephenie Meyer's vampire saga, but just as many viewers will notice that this is too often a case of the emperor -- or, more specifically, buff teenage boys -- wearing no clothes.
A step down from last year's box office hit Twilight, New Moon has retained the same screenwriter (Melissa Rosenberg) but opted to switch out directors (The Golden Compass' Chris Weitz in for Thirteen's Catherine Hardwicke). Perhaps it's this changing of the guard that prevents this latest picture from ever maintaining a steady rhythm. After all, Twilight might have been occasionally ripe, but that worked for the material, as Hardwicke instinctively fed into the oversized angst that all too often defines the lives of teenagers wrapped up in their daily melodramas. By comparison, Weitz keeps the proceedings on a low simmer, an emotional oasis only punctuated every once in a while by Bella's howls as she pines for her one true bloodsucking love.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. In New Moon, vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) has decided that it's too dangerous for his human girlfriend Bella (Kristen Stewart) to be around his kind, so he and his family pack up and leave their Forks, Wash., home, ostensibly for good. Missing her soulmate, Bella shuts down completely, and is only slowly drawn out of her shell by her friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner) -- and by the discovery that Edward appears in ethereal form whenever she's in danger. Bella repeatedly puts herself at risk -- riding motorcycles at daredevil speeds, diving off impossibly high cliffs, gorging on fast-food combos every day for a full month (OK, kidding on that last one) -- but soon discovers that an even deadlier option materializes with the return of some vampiric foes. And what's with those gigantic werewolves stomping through the Pacific Northwest woods?
As before, the whole enterprise is primarily held together by Stewart's performance, a believable mix of adoration for her man and attitude toward the rest of the world. The plot structure limits Pattinson's screen time, but that's not necessarily a bad thing: Less effective than he was in Twilight, here the actor seems bored by the franchise, as if he's already anxious to try his hand at more mature roles. As Jacob, Lautner projects a wholesome earnestness, even if he's victim to most of the film's most risible moments -- I especially chuckled during the scene in which he tends to a cut on Bella's forehead not by tearing off a swatch of his shirt but by whipping off the entire garment, thus allowing audiences to appreciate his bulging biceps-upon-biceps.
Then again, you can't say that Weitz doesn't have his target audience in sight. In my review for Twilight, I wrote that the movie was "a love story first and a vampire tale second." Given Pattinson's ascension to pinup star as well as the pack of shirtless hunks filling out this latest film's supporting cast, it's safe to amend that statement to read that New Moon is a love story first and a male-model calendar second. The vampire tale has become almost incidental.