Anybody who has been misled by the TV ads into thinking The Lovely Bones is a crime thriller will be sorely disappointed. Similarly, fans of Alice Sebold's eponymous and popular novel will likely be dumbfounded by director Peter Jackson's emotionally bereft adaptation.
Making a successful fantasy film is tricky, as is translating to the big screen a wistful, sprawling tale of tragedy and its aftermath, told in the voice of a murdered 14-year-old. Jackson defied the fan-boy naysayers by shepherding the Lord of the Rings trilogy to instant epic classic, and readers of Sebold's book hopefully recalled Jackson's 1994 broody teen-crime melodrama, Heavenly Creatures.
But alas, Jackson has trampled all over this domestic melodrama -- cutting, appending, mischaracterizing -- while choosing to reach for just two incompatible tools: bloodless thriller and rainbows-and-sparkles after-life fantasia.
Susie Salmon opens her own story, with a voiceover from beyond: "I was 14 years old when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." Susie is hunted and killed by a neighbor, Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a seemingly ordinary man in a small Pennsylvania town. Susie floats away to a place that isn't quite heaven, and from this aerial perch, watches how her death affects those still living -- from her family and friends to her killer.
This is the meat of the novel, how Susie's parents (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz), grandmother (Susan Sarandon) and sister (Rose McIver) are undone -- then, rebuilt -- by their grief and anger. But the film scrimps on fleshing out the family, presenting them as one-dimensional. (Viewers who did not read the book should be utterly baffled at some bizarre scenes that just pop out of nowhere.) Poor granny, who moves in to provide ballast for the fractured family, is portrayed as Auntie Mame: all cocktails, fur stoles and comic housekeeping. (She even overflows the washer, and does the twist in the bubbles!) And the inordinate amount of time Jackson devotes to Harvey and growing suspicions about him leads nowhere satisfying.
And what of our narrator? Poor Susie (portrayed by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, who was so good as the lying little minx in Atonement) should be enduring her own grieving process. She's acutely aware of all she's lost as she watches her "future" unfold without her in it. Instead, Jackson has her mostly exhibiting childish glee, as Susie cavorts through one loopy CGI landscape after another.
This place that isn't-quite-heaven-yet recalls hackneyed dreamy images -- everything from 1970s pop LP covers and pharmaceutical TV ads to screen-savers. (Another reason to fear death.) Susie runs through a cornfield that fills with water because ... ? It's as if Jackson imagined that particular special effect and just wanted to use it.
Jackson has rounded up a decent slate of actors, but given them little to do in a story that is primarily about relationships. He short-shrifts the family drama in favor of CGI wonder-dom, so we're left with the merest outlines of how profoundly Susie's death affects everyone. Without fully depicting this, even the work's title makes no sense. The "lovely bones" are those re-grown around Susie's absence by friends and family, a foundation knitted over many years, fragile bonds forged in the new reality. This is also what liberates Susie, but Jackson's depiction of her post-death release is head-scratching and laughable.
The impact of the death of a child is tricky material, to be sure, and an effective telling should run viewers through a vicarious catharsis from shocked and wrung-out to consoled. I felt bad, all right -- but mostly for the decent folks on screen caught up in this floundering mess.
Starts Fri., Jan. 15.