Peter Jackson has made films that many have considered “instant classics”, such as The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, a bloated and unnecessary remake in the form of King Kong, and some little-seen but great cult classics such as Bad Taste, Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners. His newest film, The Lovely Bones, adapted from Alice Sebold’s novel of the same name, is kind of a combination of all of the above.
The story focuses on Susie Salmon, a fourteen year-old girl who lives in rural Pennsylvania with her parents and two siblings. She describes to us, via narration, what she wants to be when she grows up, her disliking of a snowglobe with a penguin in it, and even how she normally gets the “skeevies” when she sees someone looking at her weirdly. She didn’t get that last feeling soon enough, which inevitably leads to her murder and time spent in the “in-between” Heaven and Earth.
We see that the Salmons are an idyllic family as they get Susie a camera for her birthday. She is in the throes of her first unrequited love, and even has to suffer through a film club that makes her watch Othello with that guy “who has two first names. Laurence. Oliver.” It’s after this class, and a bold move from the boy that she likes, which leads her into the hands of Mr. Harvey.
From here, the movie moves into the surreal, and strangely incoherent world of the “in-between” that Susie gets stuck in. We see her being afraid of entering a symbol of Mr. Harvey’s house – but with a lighthouse on top. This could be some kind of weird Elektra complex where Mr. Harvey is like her dad who makes tiny boats in bottles – one of which has said lighthouse in it. Who knows.
This might be her equivalent of “going into the white light”, or maybe it’s just to reveal why she’s in this particular place. Tree’s leaves turn into birds for no apparent reason, flying away and coming back. There’s the movie wanting to be a murder-mystery, and of course the comedic interlude of Grandma moving in to run the house.
What this means is that while The Lovely Bones is pleasing to look at from the fantastic attention to period detail, and interesting uses of computer generated imagery to create “heaven, ” it falls apart as a coherent and touching story. There are moments of terror, suspense and even comedy that all work as separate pieces, but when put together, they just don’t mesh.
There’s no reason why heaven has the look it does – when it’s clearly meant to illicit someone’s subconscious. We don’t know why a certain girl keeps popping up to play with Susie – when there could very easily have been some other kids she could have experienced as well. Or why we keep getting the side-story of a girl from school who seems to have some kind of “paranormal” power, and leads into the cheesiest and weirdest scene in the movie – involving a kiss.
Saoirse Ronan is pretty good as Susie, although what I can imagine in the novel being a confused, young girl being scared and also feeling a freedom in this colorful Purgatory, in the movie just seems like a shallow one-dimensional character going from worrying about leaving her family to sledding down a mountain. Mark Wahlberg turns in a good performance as Susie’s father, and in one particular moment even manages to make his character both rage with anger, while also seem afraid of what he’s confronting. It plays pretty powerfully, considering Wahlberg’s usual output.
The other actors; Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, and Michael Imperioli, all turn in good to fun performances (Sarandon as the grandmother has some down-right hilarious moments); but when it comes to the actors, this movie really belongs to Stanley Tucci. The man has gone from being a weasel in movies like A Life Less Ordinary, to completely endearing in last year’s Julie & Julia.
Here, he’s creepy and just completely scary in the role of Mr. Harvey. Everything about the man, from his weird mustache, Don Corleone-esque cheeks and manner of speaking; to the dollhouses he makes and the way he stares out his window – just gave me the “skeevies.”
Overall The Lovely Bones is the weakest of the Jackson films I’ve seen. There are parts to really like, and some moments that are genuinely creepy, but it’s just not effective and coming from a book that I hear is very powerful; I just didn’t feel it here. Even the ending, which I thought was going to redeem the entire movie, cops out and gives us a cathartic release that we just didn’t need.
This is all too bad, because I had really been looking forward to the movie.