The Lovely Bones (PG-13) 120 min. Directed by: Peter Jackson Written by: Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie Original Score: Brian Eno
Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones is a decidedly creepy and insubstantial adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel. Recounting the after-life of young Susie Salmon, a 14-yr old Pennsylvania girl who is raped and murdered by a neighbor, Bones is being sold as a kind of bittersweet fantasy with an eye on family tragedy. Beautifully photographed, with a haunting wistful score by Brian Eno, Jackson and company bring all of their technical expertise to bear on the film and attend to its tricky narrative taboos with a delicate hand. The acting is mostly very good, with the centerpiece being a thoughtful and sweet performance by Saoirse Ronan, who seems to have a bright cinematic future ahead of her. And yet, for all of this, The Lovely Bones falls flat on its face. Hard.
What happened? Who gets the blame? Jackson, who seems to be everyone’s favorite kicking boy after Kong, seems to be catching the brunt of it. Roger Ebert recently suggested he’s clearly the reason it failed. While it’s true that Jackson’s literal and visual sensibilities were an obstinate match for the material, Ebert clearly hasn’t (and doesn’t claim to have) read the book upon which this is based. The unfortunate and real problem with Bones is actually inherent in its source material.
I have read Sebold’s slight and occasionally poignant novel, and every major snafu in the film version is a result of hewing closely and carefully to the book. The text worked to an extent because Sebold related to and grafted on to Salmon (Sebold herself is a rape survivor and whole passages of Susie’s helpless observation seem inspired by real experience) but the after life sequences felt like the clunky narrative device of a neophyte author cutting her teeth. For a cinematic version, Susie should have been pushed further into the background, although Jackson instead moves her right up front, and then tries to give equal screen-time to everyone, as if this were another epic fantasy adaptation where each character required extra devotion.
Lovely Bones feels like a very slight and superficial film, and this won’t do at all when the central scene twenty minutes in involves Stanley Tucci’s pedophile serial killer luring Susie into his rape den and then murdering her. That’s too much darkness if it only serves a syrupy coming of age story about a little girl trouncing around her own personal Elysium. The sequence itself is handled with restraint, but there’s only so much that can be done. Excising this scene completely may have helped improve the film but Jackson can’t find his way around it and instead throws himself—and his production team—into making it as uncomfortable and unbearable as the PG-13 will allow. Tucci’s killer is another sticking spot. He looks like every picture of a molester you have ever seen, and in another sad bit of mismanagement, he also resembles someone with Aspergers or some other social dysfunction. He is a loathsome creature, and the movie spends too much time with him. A sequence where Susie, shortly after dying, watches him bathing post-homicide is almost too icky to tolerate.
Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz do their jobs, but they are wasted as Susie’s parents. It seems to me that their story, grieving after their daughter, trying to hold up their marriage, and Wahlberg’s search for Susie’s killer, are the clear focal point of a cinematic adaptation. Instead, their story is suppressed in favor of more muddled afterlife scenes, or bits involving Tucci eyeing up other victims. Wahlberg, in particular, comes off the worst because he doesn’t seem to understand his character at all. Like The Happening, we can see him struggling against bad writing and poor management but he never locks on to anything. The sequence where he seemingly senses his daughter’s presence in the flickering light of a candle is the film’s single most effective scene, but everything else involving him is stilted at worse and laughable at best. Sarandon, as the hippie mother-in-law, has the movie’s most embarrassing moment; a freakin’ musical montage that shows her wacky attempts at babysitting Susie’s siblings while her parents grieve.
Strangely, Jackson’s visualization of Sebold’s afterlife is the movie’s weakest material. He has proved himself a lively stylist in everything else he’s ever worked on, and there are moments of pure heartbreaking beauty in both the Rings trilogy and his earlier film, Heavenly Creatures. Here, he’s using all the fx at his command and a surrealistic approach to Susie’s dreamscape, but there isn’t any substance or structure to the ideas and he starts fixating on even the most overblown of interior metaphors. Most absurd is a sea of bottled ships that keep washing up and crashing on a virtual shore.
Part of the problem is that Sebold hasn’t written an afterlife he, or anyone else, can believe in. She isn’t trying to evoke a convincing or compelling universe, and she doesn’t treat it as a real place but rather a mechanism to let Susie see her life after the fact. That may be fine for writing—and believe me, there are limits even there—but in a film if we can see heaven as a substantial, physical space then it needs to be defined and explored. That other Kiwi, Vincent Ward, did just that in the underrated What Dreams May Come. The afterlife of that film had a similar unlikely notion at its core, namely that heaven is made up of separate chambers that we fill and adorn with the overflow of our psyche. But Ward explored the attributes of his world, and focused in on action that required the characters to study and examine it with interest. You’re telling me that you wake up in a place like Susie finds herself, with all the potential to explore secrets hidden from all human understanding, and what you choose to do is to follow around the unsavory dude who killed you and the dopey guy who made puppy eyes during film class?
Odder still is the idea that the afterworld Susie inhabits is also populated solely by victims of her killer. This is a weird and completely out of left-field component that doesn’t suggest there’s much organizational sense to the hereafter. Again, it’s largely due to Sebold refusing to treat this segment of the story with plausibility. It’s not real to her, and Jackson never makes it so, so it remains illusory to us too. It doesn’t help then that the rest of the film is set-up like a coming of age story for Susie. But the rub there is Susie has already come of as much age as she ever will. This girl will never laugh, or take photos, or watch another movie again. She was murdered and raped and cut up under the ground in a frozen autumn cornfield and there’s not going to be kisses, or boys, or college, or kids or anything else. Her life is over, and the film stubbornly fails to acknowledge that. For all of the difference that her over-produced heaven makes, it might as well be a white chalk line that Ronan just steps over and stands behind for the rest of the picture. It would have had just as much effect and been substantially cheaper to manage.
I’m making it all sound worse than it really is, but nonetheless, it’s hard to get beyond the fact this one just plain doesn’t work. I appreciated the level of detail that went into recreating the 1970s in a way that felt lived in and immersive. I liked Ronan’s performance and hope that Jackson finds a use for her elfin features in the next few Tolkien adaptations. As a production, it’s gorgeous and on a level of craftsmanship, it is very high. But as a story, nope, not at all. Like Susie, we just sit there, watching it all unfold, helpless to do anything other than get up and leave. Even then, there are teases something wonderful will happen, but the movie keeps getting in the way of even that.