Offering a slightly skewed angle on Mary Shelley’s classic tale, Paul McGuigan’s “Victor Frankenstein” stitches together a patchwork of ideas — some new and novel, some pilfered and tired — but the final product never shows enough sparks of life to justify reanimating its nearly 200-year-old source. Told from the perspective of lab assistant Igor, this reimagining features some fun production design and a performance of undiluted bug-eyed flamboyance from James McAvoy as the titular pale student of unhallowed arts, but its reservoirs of energy and ingenuity run dry long before the finale, leaving the film to lumber to its half-hearted conclusion. Set to bow amid a tough crowd of Thanksgiving weekend competition, the Fox release will have trouble galvanizing much of an audience.
Scripted by Max Landis (whose August release “American Ultra” presented a similar dish of promising ingredients that never managed to fully bake), “Victor Frankenstein” begins with a rather unpromising voiceover line: “You know this story.” The line is spoken by a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe) who has spent his life in the circus, cruelly mistreated by his fellows, with his only solace coming from the amateur study of human anatomy and an infatuation with a trapeze artist named Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay). Both of these extracurricular pursuits come into play when he witnesses Lorelei take a tumble in the center ring, and skillfully saves her life alongside a spectator from the crowd, Victor Frankenstein (McAvoy).
Impressed with the hunchback’s medical knowledge and nimble hands, Victor offers him a job, which for dimly articulated reasons necessitates a daring battle-escape from the circus that leaves a fellow performer dead. Back at his London lab — a cluttered labyrinth of fizzling contraptions and trap doors enthusiastically rendered by production designer Eve Stewart — Victor brusquely drains his new assistant’s hump and rugby-tackles his spine straight, giving him the alias Igor, the name of an old roommate of Victor’s who has mysteriously gone missing.
The young Frankenstein — who is not yet a doctor, and in fact is close to flunking out of med school — proves to be a magnetic busybody around the lab and a hopeless social maladroit out of it, obsessed with a desire to overcome death by infusing life into an inanimate body. With Igor’s help, he manages to create a gnarly ape-creature from discarded zoo animal parts, which is a success in that it helps secure the pair future funding from a foppish, malevolent rich kid (Freddie Fox), and less so in that the reanimated creature appears to be pure evil, and his rampage attracts the attention of a no-nonsense Scotland Yard detective (Andrew Scott) who was previously tasked with investigating the circus killing.
Landis’ screenplay tries to play a number of angles here, some cute but distracting (references to Mel Brooks and Comic-Con’s Hall H), and others intriguing but underdeveloped (the notion of Victor as a sort of proto-Silicon Valley disrupter). But his most memorable innovations come from the constant doses of homoerotic tension he cooks up for Victor and Igor; the two come close enough to making out frequently enough that one wonders if a slash-fiction sex scene might have been included in an earlier draft of the script.
Not even a hint of that spark is to be found in Igor’s dealings with Lorelei, however, as she reappears on the scene as a high-society showgirl, instigating the sort of romantic subplot for which the word “perfunctory” is almost too generous. Around the two-thirds mark, too many such subplots start to crowd out any flashes of wit, and the buildup to the creation of Victor’s showpiece monster is all but shrugged off as the film hustles to a visually busy but emotionally flat climax (neck bolts, lightning) at a Scottish castle. Indeed, as the film’s first line later repeats, we do know this story, but if one is to go to the trouble of resurrecting the Frankenstein narrative, a little more respect ought to be paid to its signature themes and scenes.
Director McGuigan does deserve some credit for crafting a fantastical but never too-Steampunkish 19th-century London on a modest budget, and he pulls off a nifty visual motif in which anatomical sketches are superimposed onto the bodies of passers-by. But marrying the film’s modern touches with its period setting — or its self-aware humor with the sense of tragic inevitability any good Frankenstein story needs — is beyond his grasp here, and his action scenes in particular leave much to be desired. He’s better served when he leaves the game Radcliffe and the madcap McAvoy to simply bounce off one another: If not lovers, the two at least resemble a pair of odd-couple roommates in a sort of Victorian-era “Real Genius” remake, their graveyard-sourced monster just another in a long series of diversions to avoid responsibility.