January 14, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Wait, you're not a vampire, are you?

Grade: B –

Director: Peter Jackson

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, and Rose McIver

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

It’s not the story about the rape and murder of a teenage girl that makes reviewing The Lovely Bones such a thorny undertaking.

If anything seemed like a sure thing, it was the film adaptation of Alice Sebold’s mega-bestseller – it remained on the New York Times hardback bestseller list for over a year – directed by Oscar-winner Peter Jackson, helmsman of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, and apropos of Sebold’s dark subject, Heavenly Creatures.

Instead, apart from Stanley Tucci’s acclaimed turn as serial killer George Harvey, The Lovely Bones has been shut out of the awards season accolades. Frankly, some of the catcalls are nitpicky and unjustified. One of the most repeated criticisms is Jackson’s decision not to shoot the book’s gruesome, emotional touchstone, in which Harvey rapes and dismembers 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, Oscar-nominated for Atonement). Jackson proclaimed such a scene would “make it a film that I wouldn’t want to watch” and that he had “no interest” in filming “anything that depicted violence towards…a young person in a way that was serious…”

Jackson’s larger, more cogent point is that the lurid rendering of such a heinous act is so combustible that it would suck the narrative and emotional oxygen out of the rest of the film. Indeed, The Lovely Bones is principally the story of Susie’s journey to an afterlife called “the in-between,” where she looks down on not only her killer, but also her family and friends as they struggle to cope with her death.

Jackson’s CGI-laden rendering of Susie’s hereafter is both risky and problematic. His ceaseless psychedelic representations are seemingly lifted from Terry Gilliam’s cutting room floor. But, the tableau is occasionally bucolic and evocatively spiritual. When Jack (Mark Wahlberg), Susie’s grieving father, smashes the collection of ships-in-a-bottle he and his deceased daughter once constructed together, the juxtaposition of life-sized shipwrecks that simultaneously occur along a rocky coastline in Susie’s afterlife is an affecting blend of bombast and melancholy.

The real problem with The Lovely Bones is that Jackson seems caught in his own in-between world. For starters, he adopts the book’s early-1970s suburbia setting, a milieu that speaks more to Sebold’s age (born in 1963) than any meaningful approximation of “more innocent times.” More significantly, Jackson takes the book’s already cumbersome plot points and lacquers them with jolting narrative and tonal shifts. The story’s meditative core metastasizes into a psychological thriller, police procedural, revenge saga, love story, coming-of-age tale, dark comedy, family drama, and, yes, spiritual odyssey. Taken individually, some of these subplots work well. As a whole, the result is schizophrenic and strangely emotionless.

Wahlberg proves both too young and lacking in emotional depth to portray the tormented Jack. Carolyn Dando and Reece Ritchie seemingly trained at the Twilight acting academy to play, respectively, the clairvoyant Ruth Conners and Susie’s would-be heartthrob, Ray. The rest of the otherwise game cast is repeatedly squandered: Susan Sarandon’s role as boozy Grandma Lynn is played for incongruous comic relief; the part of Abigail (Rachel Weisz), Susie’s mom, is edited down to the point of inertia; Lindsey (Rose McIver), Susie’s sister, primarily plays Nancy Drew and jogs around her neighborhood…a lot.

Even the precocious Ronan is reduced to monotonous narration and gaping at green screens. Her talents, like the other moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout The Lovely Bones, suffocate under the weight of great expectations and muddled implementations.

Neil Morris

*Originally published at www.indyweek.com

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