Lovely Bones, The (United States/United Kingdom/New Zealand, 2009)

December 25, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Lovely Bones, The Poster

Maybe there's some truth to the assertion that Alice Sebold's novel is unfilmable. After all, if a visionary like Peter Jackson, who crafted a nearly perfect cinematic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, can't do it, who can? Perhaps the issue is that Jackson tried to stay too true to the source material. Despite significant cuts and instances of condensation, the plot's skeleton tracks well with Sebold's book, but therein lies the roots of a problem: the movie features wild swings in tone and fails to draw the viewer into the story. The story told by Jackson's The Lovely Bones is the same as the one related by Sebold, but it lacks the complexity and empathy evident in the book.

The narrator, Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), opens the movie by informing us that she's dead. In fact, she tells us the day of her death: December 6, 1973 (at the age of 14). The first quarter of the film provides a flavor of who Susie is by depicting incidents from her life: how her quick thinking saves her little brother, how she harbors a crush on a boy at school, and how she and her father share a passion for art (he is obsessed with building ships in bottles; her hobby is photography). Then, one day on her way home from school, she is waylaid by a nebbish neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). He lures her into an underground room, and that's the last we see of her alive. Her disappearance and apparent death sunder the family. Abigail (Rachel Weisz), Susie's mother, packs up and leaves. Jack (Mark Wahlberg), Susie's father, stews in a vat of self-recrimination, believing himself to be somehow responsible. And Lindsey (Rose McIver), Susie's sister, harbors suspicions about Harvey that she does little to hide. This makes her a potential target. Meanwhile, in the afterlife, Susie watches all of these things transpire while interacting with her new dead BFF, Holly (Nikki SooHoo).

Heaven, as depicted in The Lovely Bones, is not a place I'd be anxious to visit. Filmmakers have always struggled with depictions of the afterlife, and Jackson is no exception. The only director I can recall making a compelling film about life-after-death is Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose 1998 picture Afterlife is a small masterpiece. Although Jackson's interpretation of Susie's heaven is technically impressive, it lacks emotional resonance. It's pretty but vacuous, and every time the film focuses on the characters inhabiting it, the proceedings grind to a halt. While Susie is alive, she's an interesting character. Once she's dead, she is dull, and providing her with a "storyline" seems pointless.

Devoting an inordinate amount of time to Susie's navigation of the afterlife robs the film of an ability to tell the family's story in full. Short-cuts are taken, occasionally making actions seem poorly motivated or out-of-character. The scene in which Jack realizes Harvey is the killer is ineptly handled - the leap of logic he makes doesn't seem reasonable given the evidence at hand. No attempt is made to flesh out Harvey's character; he is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill motion picture serial killer. The need to limit the running time results in choppy and incomplete character arcs and the way in which the film concludes, although representative of what happens in the book, comes across on-screen as contrived and unsatisfying.

A degree of criticism has been leveled at Jackson for sanitizing what happens to Susie. There's no way The Lovely Bones should be PG-13. The subject matter - that of a 14-year old girl being raped, murdered, and dismembered by a serial killer - is by nature intended for mature audiences. To "soften" things, no mention is made of a sexual assault (either with Susie or the other victims) and most of the violence occurs off-screen. Jackson's approach turns aspects of the story that should be disturbing and uncomfortable into ones that are significantly less difficult to digest. This has the unintended consequence of diminishing the emotional impact of what happens to Susie and how it traumatizes her family. A graphic depiction of Susie's fate would not have been necessary, but the near-total avoidance of the horror of what happens in the underground room undermines the production.

The best performance is provided by Stanley Tucci, although his role is thankless. By his acting, he makes Harvey seem more like a sad, lonely introvert than a psychopath, but the character is too thinly drawn for Tucci to transform his alter-ego into one of the great tortured movie villains. Saoirse Ronan is fine as Susie - full of life (even when she's dead) and sparkle, but this performance doesn't measure up to the one she gave in Atonement. The rest of the cast is merely okay. Rachel Weisz doesn't have many scenes. Susan Saradon (as Grandma Lynn) is superfluous. And Marc Wahlberg never seems to get a handle on Jack.

Considering how well Jackson handled the ebb and flow of Heavenly Creatures, it's surprising that he fails to make The Lovely Bones more than a disappointing curiosity. Based on the evidence at hand, it is difficult to determine whether a decade of fashioning epic motion pictures (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong) has impeded Jackson's ability to effectively tell small, character-driven stories or whether the book he chose to adapt would defeat anyone. Regardless of the reasons, the bottom line is that The Lovely Bones doesn't work, and that's a disappointment.

Lovely Bones, The (United States/United Kingdom/New Zealand, 2009)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2009-12-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1