Now Playing: Jackson Rattles ‘The Lovely Bones’

15 Jan


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

2 marias


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.

lovely_bones_4-535x304I  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?

the_lovely_bones 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.

Other Cinematropolis Reviews:


The Book of Eli


44 Inch Chest


The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus




Up In The Air



53 Responses to “Now Playing: Jackson Rattles ‘The Lovely Bones’”

  1. Hawaiian Organ Donor January 15, 2010 at 9:11 am #

    Sterling review. You found all the same faults I did with this horrid film. The sequences in Susie’s heaven were staggeringly awful.

  2. koutchboom January 15, 2010 at 10:46 am #

    There’s a really good movie in here….too bad Jackson couldn’t keep it in his pants.

  3. Hawaiian Organ Donor January 15, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    Sterling review. You found all the same faults I did with this horrid film. The sequences in Susies heaven were staggeringly awful.

  4. Droid January 15, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    This is a shit book and an even shitter movie.

  5. Bartleby January 15, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    Im not convinced it’s all Jackson’s fault. This never should have been translated into the film.

  6. vff January 15, 2010 at 11:03 am #


  7. Droid January 15, 2010 at 11:22 am #

    Just to clarify, Susie’s not in heaven. She’s “in the inbetween”. Essentially she has to come to terms with her death and let go of her connection to earth for her to go to heaven. The other victims are supposed to be her guides on that journey.

    It’s Jacksons fault because he chose to adapt it. Maybe he thought he had another Heavenly Creatures on his hands. If, and this is a big IF, Jackson had jettisoned the entire spirit of st. susie plotline and instead dealt properly with the family’s gradual disintigration and acceptance it may have been slightly interesting.

    But, alas, he made a special effects movie about the rape and murder of a 14 year old.

  8. Bartleby January 15, 2010 at 11:28 am #

    Droid, I know the movie and the book call it the inbetween, but it’s nothing like a holding place, Susie can influence the events there, and it has some kitschy splendor to it that doesn’t make it seem very much like in-between anything. It’s having heaven cake and trying to eat it too. My point is that it doesn’t make much sense So, if the film is confused about it, I’m just calling it heaven.

    The only inbetween I know is that awesome filling ‘inbetween’ the Little Debbie Oatmeal creme piece.

  9. Bartleby January 15, 2010 at 11:30 am #

    actually, I used the term ‘heaven’ only once, so I’ll go ahead and take it out…

  10. Droid January 15, 2010 at 11:40 am #

    I’m not disparaging your review, mate. Call it whatever the hell you want. The bottom line is, it doesn’t work wherever she is.

    The only inbetween that’s of any consequence to me is one in which I’m the inbetween of a Playboy playmate sandwich.

    • Bartleby January 15, 2010 at 11:44 am #

      Yea, well the fact it doesn’t work we agree on, and it sounds like we agree it didn’t really work in prose form either. Everything is light and metaphorical, but it’s structured around a very real and disturbing event and then nothing is every done with it. The film is worse because it makes everything very concrete and literal, exemplifying the issues the book had. Particularly, I’m thinking the icecicle scene.

  11. Droid January 15, 2010 at 11:45 am #

    The one effective sequence in the film is the break in. Which makes me think that he should dump the special effects for his next flick and make a straight up thriller.

    • Bartleby January 15, 2010 at 11:46 am #

      Yea, ever see Heavenly Creatures. That was everything this is not…

      Of course, I also really liked King Kong…

  12. Droid January 15, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    I saw HC when it first came out. To be honest I’d have to watch it again because that was about 15 years ago. But I remember it to be good.

    I didn’t like Kong. Give me a chainsaw and I’ll chop that flick into a terrific 100 minute movie.

  13. infamousqbert January 15, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    i agree that a lot of what made the book good was somewhat lost in translation. the aspects of “coming of age” in the book, such as susie watching her sister do all the things she’d never get to do, and the connection to the love interest and other girl were left too minimal here. i liked the way she used them in the book to explain why susie was unable to move on, how she wanted so desperately to grow up that she couldn’t stop watching her friends grow up. and having that whole body-switching scene revolve around a kiss, rather than sex, really felt like a let down to me. say what you will about the well-thought-out-ness of the scene in the book, but at least the import of it made sense when viewed from within a 14 year old girl’s mind. it wasn’t plausible that she would hang around for so long, just to kiss him and run away.

    sorry, i didn’t mean to write my own novel here. basically, i mostly agree with your review, but i did think it was visually beautiful.

  14. allthingsace January 15, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    I really enjoyed reading your review. Strange, it makes me want to read the book.

  15. Doug January 15, 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    i found out how to work from your laptop at home or anywhere! i was getting scammed like a mutha f-errrr and this Dude name Gospel Jackson helped me out . if you don’t want to spend lot’s of money and get lot’s of money just sitting home in you sleep wear then go here

    i’m serious he will help you make money .. you can call him yourself everyday if you have too!

  16. koutchboom January 15, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    Yeah if they trimmed off a half hour, and made this happen on Earth save for maybe one or two scenes of the “the inbetween” whatever (namely just that first scene in the bathroom) and flesh out the parents then this would’ve been a good movie. Like seriously her mother just leaves for no good reason, and the relationship between mother and grandmother is never explain or gone into. The grandmother was just a thrown away character.

    Check out my review here:

  17. koutchboom January 15, 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    No love for the bath tube scene? Did anyone in your theater laugh when Jackson was on screen?

    Also I just realized the concept of developing one film a month on that last one it should’ve been a heartbreaking event, like these where the last NEW pictures he’d ever see of his daughter. Instead it takes off at break neck speed as if he knows clues are there. That should’ve been an after thought.

  18. stacilaynewilson January 15, 2010 at 4:59 pm #

    I agree with your assessement; the fault seems to lie in both the source material and the cinematic interpretation.

  19. koutchboom January 15, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    Also did you notice the very basic opening credits?

  20. broke207 January 15, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    this is a beautiful, thoughtful, and consise review (although it’s not really helping me get excited to see the movie on tuesday- not your fault). so why is it that the point that made the largest impression on me was where you referred to the movie “what dreams may come” as “underrated”? “what dreams may come” is hands down one of the worst movies ever made (ever!). after viewing it (the impression is still quite clear), i felt as if i had been robbed and raped at gunpoint for 2 hours of my life. anyway, it makes it a bit hard for me trust you as a reviewer- knowing that you enjoyed such utter crap. usually, your taste seems quite good. what gives?

  21. murkmutt January 16, 2010 at 2:57 am #

    you know what, i love to see such book in motion pictures, the first time i saw that book in the store, i wnted to buy it but out of the budget so im still saving money for it. loveto make a blog as a review. i like u.

  22. Radipt January 16, 2010 at 12:30 pm #

    What story is it tell?

  23. Jerry January 16, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    Haven’t seen it or read it, but I will say two things: 1) I’m not surprised that Peter Jackson bogged the whole thing down with special effects, that I’ll buy, and 2) I’ll bet ten bucks this reviewer is Christian, which would account for their inability to understand a very simple yet interpretable idea regarding the afterlife. Just my thoughts.

    • Bartleby January 17, 2010 at 9:33 am #

      the ten bucks goes to you Jerry, but I guess you had a pretty good shot at that. Your assessment however is incorrect.

      See my praise of that “utter crap” What Dreams May Come which gave a very similar representation of the afterlife. In that one though they actually explored the world they set up. The same goes for films like ‘Afterlife’, Wristcutters: A Love Story’, ‘The Restless’ and ‘Ink’ that give a very different view of the afterlife from the one presented in Christian belief. The view in LB isn’t just simplistic, it’s superficial and almost irrelevent to the story.

  24. AVavs January 16, 2010 at 5:05 pm #

    The “Heaven” Susie is in is HER heaven or, her interpretation of what Heaven is like in her mind.

    To this point: “He is a loathsome creature, and the movie spends too much time with him.” I say, if you read the book you should know why they spend so much time on him. The same way other should know why heaven/the in-between Susie is in is the way it is if they had truly read the book.

    I havent seen the movie yet– but Im pretty sure if Jackson did make a “special effects movie about the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl” he did the book justice because it is about the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and since she is watching from “her heaven” in the book and the movie (I assume) then it sounds like a lot of the plot echoes the book. Watch the movie for what it is… a MOVIE and not a complete and 100% accurate depiction of the book, which, in my opinion is pretty difficult to turn into a movie without using a lot of special effects.

    Perhaps everyone should re-read the book?

    • Bartleby January 17, 2010 at 9:25 am #

      Again, I don’t have a problem with that idea, and in the book it was mostly used as a way to have susie be an omniscient narrator and giving her a heaven that is HERS made it easier for the author to bring back in past elements of Susie’s life. I get that, but because that’s all there is, it makes the idea very difficult to translate to film.Jackson basically just makes it a series of fantasy images.

      I know why they spend so much time on him in the film, but Im not about to spoil that in a review. However, the film excises the backstory of the killer which existed in the book, which pushed even Susie towards grudging pity for him, and leaves behind just the basic creepy guy staring out from his house in the shadows scenes.

      AVavs, if you see the film, I’d be interested in hearing your interpretation of it. I didn’t hate the book, but I wasn’t a big fan of it. The movie isn’t the worst one I’ve ever seen but it lacks effectiveness on its own. I personally thought MORE not less liberties should have been taken to make this a worthwhile adaptation.

      As it stands, this movie doesn’t work because it feels so light and insubstantial and yet at the same time it’s about the rape and murder of a little girl.

  25. Kaori January 17, 2010 at 2:53 pm #

    Thanks for the review. Can’t wait to watch this movie.

  26. Megan January 17, 2010 at 10:18 pm #

    I really liked this movie, but I suppose I don’t think of myself as some sort of professional critic, just someone who goes to movies. I agree the montage with the grandma seemed out of place.

  27. m18bmw January 18, 2010 at 5:57 am #

    hi :d

  28. Rob January 18, 2010 at 6:12 am #

    Books allow greater depth of character evolution – film just rushes to the climax.

    • mikagirlja January 18, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

      Very true Rob, Bartleby writes this lengthly review on the movie which i kinda argue with but, as someone who read the book a couple months ago in preparation for the movie so when I saw the movie it was just for the visualization. Jackson really falls down on telling the story about Susie and her life in the in between and her wanting to grow up, Im a girl so I know what it might have been like to be 13 and your life is taken away. Susie was not obsessed with her killer getting caught, she was more interested in her friends and family, and how they deal with her death and they grow (something she will never be able to do) all that was lost in the movie. so as you said the depth of the character evolution was missed in the movie not only with Susie but her friends and her sister.
      Its a pretty movie that went with reading the book, thats the best way to get this movie, you must read the book.

  29. rajat January 18, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    does the movie reflects the characters of the book? lack of depth. and about “up in the air” it’s “not-bad” type.

  30. MONEYMANIA January 18, 2010 at 5:37 pm #


    • koutchboom January 19, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

      hahahahah anyone else find that post funny?

  31. Marie Therese January 19, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    I’m reading the book right now. Didn’t know it was turned into a movie until after I started reading it.
    I’m halfway through 🙂

  32. hagiblog January 19, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    I really liked this movie, although I will always stand by my opinion that Mark Wahlberg seems like he’s trying to poop all the time and he’s confused about why he can’t get it out!

    I certainly had the complete opposite opinion of you man, but that’s what the movies are for! Everyone gets to decide if they like or dislike something on their own.

    Plus I really, really liked What Dreams May Come.

  33. hungover January 23, 2010 at 6:57 pm #

    Good points!

  34. Gregory Despain January 25, 2010 at 12:47 pm #

    Good stuff. Best movie I have seen in a while is Avatar hands down. That movie was well done and extremely entertaining. For any of you that have yet to see it, go watch it while it’s in theaters. You will not be disappointed.

  35. WP Themes January 31, 2010 at 11:11 am #

    Nice brief and this fill someone in on helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you seeking your information.

  36. ruth February 20, 2010 at 11:53 am #

    This is a totally horrid film which disturbed me greatly, what kind of person actually WANTS to write a story about a child being raped, murdered and cut up? i knew very little about the details of the story before i saw the film and was horrified. I will never understand how the author can live with herself for writing this awful story what kind of person is she?


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