The Lovely Bones is a technically proficient picture, filled with interesting actors, telling a compelling story from a beloved best-seller. It’s remarkable, really, how spectacularly director Peter Jackson screws it up. It is a difficult story of family heartbreak told by a director who has clearly lost his grip on how human beings talk and interact; he’s too busy playing with green-screens and CGI to bother with the performances of his ensemble. And the film is all but undone by Jackson’s now-deadly sense of pace—just about every scene in it runs on for about twice as long as it should, which shouldn’t come as a surprise after his endless Lord of the Rings movies and his ridiculously bloated King Kong remake. This is a director who never met a scene that he didn’t try to add five minutes to.The story, from Alice Sebold’s novel, is of the murder of 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, from Atonement), as told by the victim from beyond the grave. She is brutally murdered by creepy neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), shattering her family; her mother (Rachel Weisz) grieves but attempts to move on, while her father (Mark Wahlberg) obsesses over the details and clues of the disappearance, conducting something of a shadow investigation when he is unhappy with the lack of progress by police. Susie’s younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) comes to share her father’s suspicions of Harvey. Susie, meanwhile, watches all of this from beyond, frolicking and emoting in Jackson’s vast, computer-generated afterlife.
Those fantasy sequences try the viewer’s patience; the effects are impressive, yes, but rarely organic. They feel like the filmmaker showing off—“Hey, look how much money they gave me to make this movie!” Long stretches of her heavenly adventures go nowhere (the worst is a film-stopping faux music video, set to the Cocteau Twins’ “Alice,” of Susie cavorting with a dead friend and imagining herself on magazine covers), leaving us without much to think about, except how the picture’s visions of the afterlife seem borrowed from Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come. That’s not Jackson’s only moment of visual lifting; when Susie wanders into the blinding white bathroom where Harvey is cleaning up after his crime, it looks like an unimaginative YouTube filmmaker ripping of Kubrick.
There’s something forced and bloodless about the stilted narration and the overdesigned photography (both in its too-choreographed movements and its blown-out, sundrenched, self-consciously nostalgic look); both give the picture a cold, empty feel that can’t sustain the inherent emotion of the story. And while there’s no denying the power of some of the set pieces, Jackson keeps finding ways to fall all over them. The way he plays out Susie’s abduction while crosscutting to her oblivious family chattering away at dinner is unquestionably wrenching, but he can’t leave it be—he drags the sequence past the point of effectiveness, leaving his poor actors in the lurch. There’s real tension in the film’s key encounter between Wahlberg and Tucci, but it goes on and on and on, with the pair exchanging the same awkward looks as Jackson replays the same flashback images infinitum. There is exactly one great scene (Lindsey’s snooping through the killer’s house is a crackerjack suspense sequence), but it’s spoiled by the trailers.
Performances are uneven at best. Wahlberg is all wrong for the role (especially when we learn that Ryan Gosling made it all the way through pre-production before dropping out due to, all together now, “creative differences”), and doesn’t get much help from his director—a scene where the overheated actor goes out into the night, pop-eyed and clutching a baseball bat, is laughably overdone. Rachel Weisz is pretty much incapable of being bad in a movie (even those Mummy movies), but she’s begging for scraps of a character to play, and the screenplay all but forgets about her in the second half. Ronan’s breathy line readings grate on the nerves, and Tucci’s skills are wasted on such a thin character as this garden-variety monster (who is this guy? What happened to his wife? Does he have a job? How does he finance his elaborate kills if he’s home all day on a Wednesday?). Susan Sarandon, as jazzy Granma Lynn, is a relief; her re-appearance just past the hour mark energizes the drab proceedings, and while her performance may belong in a different movie, at least it’s a more entertaining one.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that my opinion of Peter Jackson, and of his films to date, is a minority one; his work simply doesn’t speak to me, and nothing about The Lovely Bones has changed my mind (as much as I would have liked it to). And I could very well be wrong about this, but I have a feeling that once his legions of fanboys get a look at it, they’ll see that while he may be their guy for telling stories about wizards and hobbits and giant apes, he comes up short when dealing with real people and real emotions.
(Postscript: Whenever you write a bad review of a movie based on a book you haven’t read, someone always assures you that you’d have liked it better if you’d read the book. I dislike the underlying hypothesis—you should be able to judge a movie based on what’s on the screen, without doing outside “homework”—but just to lay it to rest, my wife read the book and thought the movie was lousy too.)
"The Lovely Bones" opens Friday, December 11th in limited release.