Mark Reviews Movies


1 Ĺ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Michael Imperioli, Reece Ritchie, Carolyn Dando

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language)

Running Time: 2:15

Release Date: 12/11/09 (limited); 1/15/10 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 10, 2009

One word pops in my head when I think of Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, and it's "inconsistent."

There seems to be two stories at odds with each other throughout the course of the movie. One is the tale of a young girl who discovers the beauty of Heaven, and the other is the aftereffect of the young girl's unsolved murder. These are, I understand from those who have read Sebold's book, meant to mesh and complement each other, and it's clear that the story, in spite of the episodes on Earth, is meant to be one of growth for the girl even after her death.

These components never come together in Jackson's vision, which is so enraptured with the concept of creating the "blue horizon between Heaven and Earth" for the teenage girl that it never stops to consider what this place and what she's observing in the land of the living mean to her.

The Lovely Bones and little Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) certainly tell us what she's learning while watching her family and murderer shuffle around on the mortal coil in a near-constant voice-over, but those words of denial and anger growing into acceptance don't reveal themselves in her limited actions in her stop on the way to Heaven (This might also be attributed to the fact that the story is told in the past tense, which lessens its overall impact as she has already seen and discovered these things; she's telling her story as opposed to living it, if you pardon the metaphysical contradiction in the wording).

So while Susie runs around, playing in Heaven, seeing the seasons change in an instant, and marveling, as we occasionally do, at the impressive sightsóland masses separating to show a small gazebo where her could-have-been love waits, giant ships in bottles sailing the coast and shattering upon rocks as her father breaks his collection of bottled ships (save for the one she helped him make), waves of wheat like an ocean, and a small "Little Prince"-like planet hovering above massive hedge animalsówe are left to wonder if this actually means anything to her story. In the shorthand introduction to and quick throwing away of these moments, I don't see it and instead imagine a misinterpretation of Sebold's intentions.

After Susie is murdered by her neighbor Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), her father (Mark Wahlberg) and mother (Rachel Weisz) begin to grow apart. Dad is obsessed with trying to find who killed his little girl, telling the detective on the case (Michael Imperioli) how to do his job. Mom can't take her husband's hands-off approach to consoling her, instead calling in her mother (Susan Sarandon), and runs away.

Harvey is not even on the short list of suspects and becomes comfortable with his situation, while Susie's younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) begins to grow up, having a love Susie always wanted, and to suspect Harvey of involvement. Susie's crush Ray (Reece Ritchie), meanwhile, stops waiting at the gazebo every Saturday when he meets Ruth (Carolyn Dando), who saw Susie's ghost trying to run home on the night of her murder.

The narrative is a bit of a mess, really, and Jackson comes off as stymied by the prospect of connecting these two narrative elements. The transitions are obvious (a miniature door to a real door) or bumpy (almost any cut from Earth to Heaven), his camera is almost never stationary, as though he's nervous about simply letting what's happening stand on its own feet, and his juxtapositions are hollow (the family at dinner against Susie's fatal encounter and dad's hobby of model ships with Harvey's "hobby" of designing a killing cellar).

Then, of course, there are the Heavenly moments, where everything else stops dead in its tracks so we can awe at the visual design, and they are the most disconnected of the bunch. It all seems a whim, either to kick-start a sense of wonder and joy or to connect it to life on Earth.

The movie does have a promising start before Susie dies and goes to Heaven. Jackson's camera stares at a snow globe with a penguin in it, as a younger Susie laments the poor creature's situation. She grows up to desire a career in photography and longingly hope for her first kiss from Ray. All the while, her voice hits home the dramatic irony that none of this will come to pass. There's a genuine sense of sadness early on, and it somehow ends once the real grief should begin.

Part of it is Sebold's premise that there is no real end here, and the movie's climax especially suffers in this regard. As Susie's murderer hurries to dispose of the last trace of evidence against him, Susie does some supernatural hocus pocus to say some final words to Ray (another awkward juxtaposition). Susie is always around these people, and, in Sebold's eyes, it's not just a grieving mind but an otherworldly vision of comfort and solace. How dad handles it is perhaps the most honest reaction here, but again, the premise's reality undermines the actual reality of his situation. It's more than a bit of a cop-out.

I'm not sure what (or, better, which) story Jackson is trying to tell with The Lovely Bones. Susie's comes across as a telegraphed tale of acceptance, the family and murderer on Earth are too trapped in the basic idea to be more than pawns, and both suffer from a lack of overall focus. The opening scenes promise one thing, and the rest of the movie is spent contradicting it. This is a disappointment from a director we know is capable of much better.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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