© 2010 Ray Wong
Based on Alice Sebold's phenomenally successful bestseller, The Lovely Bones tackles a difficult subject of violent abuse and murder of a child. However, it looks like the filmmakers don't really know how to present the literary material in cinematic form, which is surprising since the director is Peter Jackson!
The story is set in 1973, as Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) tells us upfront what exactly has happened to her. She's just a normal, quiet, studious 14-year-old, who has a crush on an Indian boy named Ray (Reece Ritchie), when she is brutally murdered. As first, we don't know who did it and how she died, but as the story unfolds, we realize her neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), has been watching her. One day after school, he lures her into an underground shed he's built in the middle of the corn field between her house and the school. When Susie realizes what's going on, it's already too late. Meanwhile, the only person who sees her is classmate Clarissa (Amanda Michalka).
Her parents agonize over her death, and her father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg) tries in vain to find the killer. No one suspects Harvey, however. Jack and his wife, Abigal (Rachel Weisz), also drifts apart when they're grieving for Susie's death. Meanwhile, Susie's sister, Lindsey (Rose Mclver), starts to suspect Harvey as she finds him creepy. Harvey plans to eliminate the problem by killing Lindsey.
Susie is stuck in the "in-between" where she knows what's going on on Earth but she's not ready for heaven yet. She so desperately tries to communicate with her family and tell them what happened to her, and for them to get Harvey for what he did. At the same time, aided by another soul, Holly (Nikki SooHoo), Susie must learn to let it go and accept her own death.
Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) is excellent as Susie. She effectively portrays the naiveté of the young girl, her anguish, shock, and sadness. She makes us care about what happens to the character. However, the role is simply too passive to give Ronan more to do than just reacting to events. Mark Wahlberg (Max Payne) is in good form as the grieving father who tries desperately to find her daughter's killer. Rachel Weisz (The Brothers Bloom) is somewhat reserved and cold as the mother, but that could be the fault of her character and not the actress.
Susan Sarandon (Solitary Man) is a hoot as Susie's boozing, smoking grandmother. She's a comic relief for the heavy movie. Rose Mclever (Rude Awakenings) is fine as Susie's sister, but her character lacks real emotions -- for example, she doesn't seem to be grieving for her sister's death. Amanda Michalka (Super Sweet 16) has a surprisingly minor role as the only person who could see Susie, and Reece Ritchie (Triage) is dashing as Susie's crush, but ultimately does not have much else to do. Nikki SooHoo (Private Practice) gives a touching portrayal of Susie's guide in the "in-between."
The standout, though, is Stanley Tucci (Julie & Julia) as the killer. He went 180˚ from playing Julia Child's benevolent, doting husband to now playing a disturbed, evil serial killer. Tucci is an actors' actor, and his chilling portrayal of a lonely, creepy man should get him an Oscar nomination.
Adapted by Fran Walsh (King Kong), Phillippa Boyens (King Kong) and director Peter Jackson (King Kong), the screenplay is a messy hodgepodge of different things. It's a family story of dealing with grieve and loss, and the violent death of a child. It's also a murder mystery involving one of the most disturbing villains. It's also a fantasy, meditation about the afterlife. And finally, a philosophical and spiritual examination of what death really means. The trouble is, Jackson and his team of writers don't quite know how to fit all those elements and themes into one coherent story. The final product is a disjointed, convoluted patchwork of plot, and character development that is, surprisingly, devoid of genuine emotions. The characters, despite their horrors and agonies, feel stock and clichéd.
The tone and mood also are inconsistent throughout the film. Susan Sarandon's character stands out like a sore thumb because of her comic relief. Sure, humor is need in an otherwise heavy story, but not at the cost of the overall mood and tone. As a murder mystery, the incompetence of the police is grating to watch. As a contemplation of the afterlife, it's not as poignant or profound as What Dreams May Come.
As a thriller, Jackson is able to induce significant dread and disturbing images and scary moods. When he puts Stanley Tucci on the screen, the movie picks up and clips along with alarming intensity. But when the story shifts to Susie's journey through the afterlife, the movie drags. Yes, the visuals and special effects of the afterlife are beautiful and haunting. At the same time, they seem out of place and over-produced, and thus making the emotions artificial. I feel like I'm supposed to be touched, and feel the sense of awe, but instead, I am bored. There are many themes and certainly any parents could relate and feel the sucker punch of losing a child. Thus I'm surprised to see how Jackson has butchered the emotional aspect of the story. He's also failed to give us a coherent movie with a nice flow. I rather wonder if the editors were having trouble piecing the film together, as there are so many different elements and tones.
Given the source material and Peter Jackson's previous masterpieces, The Lovely Bones is definitely a disappointment. The movie may be lovely and haunting in parts. Over all, though, it's a failure. Make no bones about it.
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Saradon,
Rose Mclver, Amanda Michalka, Jake Abel, Reece Ritchie, Nikki SooHoo
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Peter Jackson (based on Alice Sebold's novel)
Distributors: DreamWorks, Paramount
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature material involving disturbing and violent content and images, and some language
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 6.5 out of 10