Monday, January 18, 2010
The Lovely Bones
Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones boils itself down to a series of bland affirmations about love and letting go over the course of 2+ hours; making a good film out of this hazily written tale of a young girl's murder and its aftermath may in fact have been impossible, but Jackson's flourishes undercut the stories harder edges. As 13-year old murder victim Susie Salmon, Saoirse Ronan is innocent, budding, and just guileless enough to be believable as someone who'd stop at the urging of sketchy neighbor Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci, succeeding in a near-impossible role) to check out his newly constructed underground lair. As readers of the novel or viewers of the trailer will know, Susie isn't on earth for the better part of the story. Jackson is less specific about the afterlife than I recall Sebold being; Susie winds up in the "in-betweens," a sort of agriculturally malleable holding area where she can observe but not influence events back home. As appealing as Ronan is she's redundant to the story after her murder.There's nothing at stake in the in-betweens, where Susie pals around with a too knowledgeable Holly (Nikki SooHoo) in a CGI-created playground and delivers unnecessary voice over narration. Jackson (along with cowriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) wouldn't dare risk offending anyone by making a choice about what Susie's afterlife means, so nothing is explained about where Susie is or what happens if she can't let go of her earthly life.
At the Salmon house things proceed with great predictability. Mom (Rachel Weisz with nothing to do) can't deal with Susie's death and takes off while Dad (Mark Wahlberg) becomes obsessed with solving the murder. There's little feeling of the passage of time in The Lovely Bones; it comes as a shock when we realize that months have passed between scenes. Wahlberg is the movie's biggest liability. I loved his funny, profane cop in The Departed but (leaving aside the fact that he looks too young to be the father of two teenagers) he simply can't get to the festering anger and pain that undergirds his role. Susan Sarandon tries to make something out of a few scenes as a flinty grandmother, but her character exists only to remind everyone else how they aren't dealing with things. As Susie's younger sister, the first to become suspicious of Mr. Harvey, Rose McIver is the only cast member who transcends her character arc. Her invasion of Harvey's house is the movie's best set piece and the one scene in whch it feels like anything could happen. Discussions of Jackson's involvement in The Lovely Bones have likened it to Heavenly Creatures, but in that striking work the two teenage girls were alive in more than just the literal sense. The fantasy sequences in Heavenly Creatures were manifestations of the girls' half-understood desires and onrushing sexuality, but in The Lovely Bones the giant topiaries and gravity defying sled rides are pretty wish fulfillment for a girl whose story has already been written.
Any vision of the afterlife engineered to be meaningful to everyone is by necessity so vague as to be meaningful to no one, and that's the problem with The Lovely Bones both on page and screen. A director with a surer feel for the intimate and personal would have better served a story that's smaller than it thinks it is.