The Lovely Bones



Laura Clifford 
The Lovely Bones

Robin Clifford 

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement," "City of Ember) was the beloved eldest of three children when she was murdered by a neighbor when she was just fourteen.  The Salmon family is torn apart by her disappearance, her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg, "The Departed," "The Happening") obsessed with finding her killer, her mother withdrawing, literally, in grief leaving her hard drinking mother, Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon, "Bull Durham," "Enchanted"), to take care of her family.  But Susie hasn't left them yet, and she lingers in the 'in-between' until she is sure they are ready to move on from "The Lovely Bones."

Laura:
Peter Jackson and his "Lord of the Rings/King Kong" cowriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens adapt the beloved Alice Sebold novel with frustratingly mixed results.  Jackson's adaptation sacrifices the family at the heart of the story, giving more time to the sensationalistic serial killer and a raft of special effects work that renders Heaven as the inside of a Mac program busy graphing Robert Zemeckis's "Contact" finale.  The story works up through the realization that Suzie may have met with foul play, but then it wavers in and out, getting close to great cinema before drifting away in a morass of overstylized visuals.

As in the book, Susie narrates her story, and the happy Salmon family is established in a series of quick strokes.  Susie, just gifted with a 110 Instamatic and 24 rolls of film for her birthday, is busy budding as a photographer, saving her asthmatic younger brother Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale), collaborating on her dad's hobby putting ships into bottles and discovering her crush on Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie, "10,000 BC") is more than reciprocated.  Then cutting through the cornfield late one afternoon from school, Susie is lured by George Harvey (Stanley Tucci, "Julie & Julia") to be the first to see the cool new underground clubhouse he has built for the kids in the neighborhood.  As Susie runs from the horrific scene, she brushes against Ruth Connors (Carolyn Dando), a strange older girl who lives on the farm with a sinkhole the community uses to dispose of old appliances and rusting cars and who has psychic abilities.  Ruth recognizes what Susie has not yet, that she has passed into the spirit world.

So far, so good, especially the restraint with which Jackson handles the murder, quite brutal as described in the novel.  Abigail Salmon (Rachel Weisz, "Definitely, Maybe," "The Brothers Bloom") is annoyed, but unconcerned when Susie isn't home in time for dinner, but as the evening progresses nerves begin to fray.  Detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli, HBO's "The Sopranos") is called in and Abigail is incensed when he suggests Susie may have run away.  Meanwhile, Susie finds herself in a bright white space occupied by a tub surrounded by the muddy clothing of George Harvey, who is soaking in it, and a sink splashed with blood - her blood.  Susie is distraught when she realizes her fate and once again, Jackson has managed to suggest horror without indulging in it. But it is at this point where Jackson begins to lose the control and restraint which have anchored the film thus far.

Susie finds herself in a faux 'world' of great beauty where she is guided by Holly (a wooden Nikki SooHoo, "Stick It"), a young girl of about her age who tells Susie she must keep moving forward in order to get to Heaven.  But Susie keeps looking back.  There is her distraught dad (Wahlberg, maintaining one dazed expression) who seems to 'see' her, a saddened Singh sitting in the mall gazebo where they had planned to meet the morning after.  Susie wanders a beach where giant ships in bottles crash onto shore and a colored ball bounces across the waves!  There is one brief moment, when Susie and Holly cavort in 'dress up' clothes in a field dominated by a topiary penguin (from a snow globe back home) that sings "Heavenly Creatures," but then Jackson overreaches again, pulling us out of the film (Susie dancing in sequined platforms atop a giant LP???). You can practically hear the technicians congratulating themselves, never more so than when an 'in between' gazebo implodes into its own sinkhole.

Back home, mom leaves to pick grapes in California without having that affair with Fenerman, Lindsey Salmon (Rose McIver) begins to notice how creepy the Harvey guy is, Grandma Lynn amuses with her inept housekeeping ability and little brother Buckley fades into the woodwork.  Ray Singh takes up with Ruth Connors, but only so Jackson can include the climactic supernatural 'first kiss' scene.  If there is an upside to Jackson's mangled adaptation, it is that Stanley Tucci really delivers as George Harvey.  He's almost unrecognizable, not only for the (too unreal) colored contacts and long blonde wig, but for the raised and softened, almost childlike voice and the facial droop he's given himself.  He is a perfect combination of that 'harmless' guy next door serial killers always turn out to be with something vaguely off.

In addition to the creepy Tucci, Saoirse Ronan has just the right presence as Susie, a young girl with the promise of a terrific woman ahead, a great loss indeed.  Rachel Weisz does heavy lifting with a gutted role and creates a loving wife, great mom, and grief-stricken parent.  Sarandon provides the entertainment.  Jackson has given breakout roles to both McIver, who brings Lindsey into her own in the film's second half (I don't think her character is even addressed by name until Susie is dead); Dando, who, like Weisz, does a lot with abbreviated screen time, and Ritchie, who's all dreamboaty and earnest yet interesting.

When he's not doodling on his computer, Jackson's production design is very good.  The Salmon neighborhood is just right, raised ranch homes well tended but not new.  Harvey's house is simply done but has that not quite right air about it, a middle aged man living in the home of an aging religious spinster.  Jackson cannot resist using Harvey's doll houses for some suggestive camera work, though, which is too obvious, just like the referential objects in his netherworld.

"The Lovely Bones" was originally to be directed by the much more down to earth Scottish director of "Ratcatcher" and "Morvern Caller," Lynne Ramsay, and it would have been interesting to see what that death-obsessed filmmaker would have done with this material. The Jackson of "Heavenly Creatures" is apparent here and is the one who could have made this film sing if his big budget counterpart hadn't kept butting in.  In indulging his yen for special effects, Jackson has neglected the heart of "The Lovely Bones," the Salmon family.  It was their healing, not catching Susie's killer, which kept her between two worlds.

C+

Robin:
Robin's review will be published on opening day, 12/11/2009..
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