Visual excess abounds for Peter Jackson, whose imagination runs wild with the imagery provided by the text of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel. Surprisingly, Jackson has less of a human element present in his crack at ‘The Lovely Bones’ than he did in his spectacularly bloated rendition of ‘King Kong’ four years ago. With so much lush opportunity to capitalize on an emotional resonance of his earthlings, Jackson instead seems far more eager to establish his flavor for special effects provided by the story’s setting.
Brilliant young actress Saorise Ronan (Oscar-nominee for ‘Atonement’) plays Susie Salmon (like the fish), a fourteen year-old suburban middle-schooler, well-behaved, adventurous, with a thrill for photography and a longing for her first kiss with the dreamy English-accented Ray (Reece Ritchie). Susie narrated the events of the film from beyond the grave, always keeping her audience ahead of the game. She informs us that she was murdered on Dec. 6, 1973. One afternoon on her way home from school, creepy neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) stops her in a field and lures her into an underground ‘playhouse’ he tells her he constructed for the neighborhood children. Horror follows as Susie never finds her way out, at least not in physical form. Her spirit goes to the ‘in-between’ where she waits until her murder is solved. Mark Wahlberg plays her determined father Jack. Rachel Weisz plays her emotional-wreck mother, Abigail. And Susan Sarandon plays her hard-drinking, chain-smoking grandmother.
The tagline on the poster stated: “The story of a life and everything that came after.” While in some ways, that’s true, “The Lovely Bones” seems less interested in the effects of Susie’s death on her family. I never once felt as though Peter Jackson meant to explore the family’s emotional devastation. Instead, much of our time is spent through these other-world visualizations with ‘Hitchiker’s Guide to Galaxy’ style imagery that Susie occupies mostly on her own. Here and there, another younger girl shows up named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) who advises Susie to keep moving forward toward Heaven. Since the audience fully knows of the details concerning the murder of Susie, and her killer’s identity, two hours are spent watching the police and the Salmon family overlook Harvey’s involvement, even though he sits next door. Frustratingly, Jackson focuses a lot on Susie’s lone explorations, as he cuts and pastes gorgeous desktop wallpapers together to create his lavishly haunting vision of afterlife. Instead of dealing with the Salmon parents’ emotional devastation, he uses their breakdowns as a backdrop for landmark special effects sequences that play pretty for sure, but they also never allow us access to real people occupying Jackson’s movie. He spends so much of his efforts creating a surreal visual experience, that his protagonists become one-dimensional and without an inlet for the audience. Where Jackson could’ve shifted focus and made Jack and Abigail dual lead characters whose relationship slowly faces demise as a result of Jack’s obsession over the murder case, the movie is constantly distracted, where only marginal suspense can be generated. Since Susie tells us everything we need to know before it occurs, there’s really no surprise left in store. At the very least, Jackson could have allowed us to get caught up in Jack’s investigation efforts and findings. Instead, he goes back and forth with sub-characters that only seem to hinder and confuse the storyline, as well as skew the reality of what happens onscreen.
Most of what confuses is a supernatural element that never becomes clear. There’s a character who seems to have the ability to contact/see the dead walking among the living. She witnesses Susie’s spirit leaving Earth, and senses her presence later on toward the end of the film. There are also moments where Susie seems to have access to her father, instances where he tries to reach out and touch her, as Susie watches him in her Purgatory-esque existence. She even seems to be able to intervene in terms of her father’s emotion–sort of an E.T. like connection where they can feel each other’s pain. This idea seems to give way to improper character motivations and realizations. Eventually Wahlberg’s character suspects Harvey, but for no apparent reason, other than his image in a photograph. Soon enough, he’s trying to smash in Harvey’s door and declaring him the killer. Sure, the audience knows he is, but for Jack to have this sudden realization, it really makes little sense.
Stanley Tucci, unrecognizable from his standard supporting affairs in films like ‘Julie & Julia,’ really has all the meat this script has to offer. Weisz, Wahlberg, and Sarandon literally disappear in this movie and their struggles go overlooked. Instead, the serial killer of Harvey manages to steal all the thunder. When Tucci makes his way to the forefront, the movie has an undeniably unsettling quality. Perhaps that has to do with Jackson’s way of lingering on an up-close shot of Tucci’s mug or him tapping his fingers ever-so eloquently. Tucci ends up stealing the movie with a haunting performance. Of course it is easier to steal a movie as a memorable villain, but Tucci never has to compete with anyone onscreen. His presence dominates any acting on display, whether it be Oscar-nominee Wahlberg, or winners Weisz and Sarandon. Ronan manages to put on a strong performance, but once she exits Earth, her character loses almost all depth. That leaves ‘The Lovely Bones’ to rely on Harvey and his potential capture. Luckily “Bones” has Tucci to the play the character, because he manages to place that weight on your chest early on that the movie never lifts.
Other than impressive special effects sequences and a memorable performance from Stanley Tucci, Director Peter Jackson has a movie that is so obtuse that I don’t even know how to classify it. If James Cameron is to be chastised for inventing a picture based on his obsessive visual excess, then Jackson should face a similar fate of criticism. To Cameron’s credit, he never intended on placing his focus on genuine human characters. Jackson did. While part of his misfire may have to do with the source material, “The Lovely Bones” nevertheless misses its opportunity to illuminate a family torn apart by murder. Even though part of me wants to give this a marginal recommendation due to its haunting and unsettling presence, I am slightly forced to move in the other direction. Jackson has delivered another overlong, bloated movie (that I didn’t love as much as ‘King Kong’) that is a bit anti-climactic and confusing as to what its intentions really are. I don’t know what to take away from ‘The Lovely Bones.’ There is only little resolve for the family characters, and not much invested in them anyway. If I was meant to be captivated by Susie’s journey beyond the grave, then I’m left unengaged. Jackson’s version of Heaven, while a culmination of raw technology efforts, feels desolate and lonely. I can’t say the movie didn’t impact me–it sure startled me, and stirred up emotions, but its protagonists did not, leaving a gaping emptiness all the special effects in the world can’t fill.
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