Sadly stuck in limbo
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan. 15, 2010
"The Lovely Bones" is anything but. Peter Jackson's movie, based on the best-selling Alice Sebold novel, flagrantly disobeys the first law of adaptation and indeed, of filmmaking in general: Get the tone right. And tone is the first thing sacrificed in this shapeless, overlong, mawkishly muddled pop-up illustration of a movie.
Part coming-of-age movie, part domestic melodrama, part thriller and part magical realist meditation on death, "The Lovely Bones" reaches desperately for style -- inspired by everything from "Twilight" and "The Teletubbies" to bad 1970s van art -- and in the process drops all pretense of substance. It leaves audiences in a limbo every bit as torturous as the one the protagonist is in.
That protagonist is Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), who in a voice-over narration explains that she was murdered in 1973 at age 14 by a neighbor. Although Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings") is far too canny a showman to miss a chance for gruesome exploitation, an impulse he indulges in agonizing sequences just before and just after the crime, most of "The Lovely Bones" transpires while Susie is in "the in-between," a candy-colored no man's land between heaven and earth, where she watches her murderer (Stanley Tucci) hide in plain sight and her father (Mark Wahlberg) go mad with unresolved grief.
What is "The Lovely Bones" about? I still don't know. If it means to be a portrait of a family coming apart after an unspeakable loss, then why introduce a blowsy, boozy grandmother played for broad comic effect by Susan Sarandon? If it's a taut game of cat-and-mouse between a grieving father and the creepy dollhouse hobbyist next door, why not let it be that and let the metaphysics take care of themselves?
Jackson's fans have been wondering how he would deploy the special effects he's known for in the service of a story that has one foot in the supernatural and one in grounded realism. The answer is: awkwardly, without subtlety and often in ways that are tiresomely obvious. (You can bet that the boats Wahlberg's character likes to build in bottles will come smashing up against some hallucinatory shore.)
The two best performances in "The Lovely Bones" belong to Ronan, whose translucent blue eyes give her an appropriately otherworldly beauty, and Tucci, nearly unrecognizable under a sandy mustache and wire-rimmed glasses. But even these sturdy actors can't bring focus to a film that never decides what it wants to be. (One can't help wondering what a filmmaker with the taste and tonal control of a Sofia Coppola, say, might have done with the same material.)
As "The Lovely Bones" lurches toward its eventual conclusion, the viewer's befuddlement is likely to give way to anger, when the whole point of the movie seems to be for Susie not to miss her first sexual experience. And anger gives way to outright rage when, in the film's most breathtakingly awful sequence, she meets her fellow murder victims in a golden nimbus of morbid sisterhood.
It's a ghastly, even hateful moment, and considering the wild shifts and switchbacks that have gone before, completely unearned. "The Lovely Bones" wants you to think that it's deep, but it's as shallow as the shoals where those ships in their bottles fetch up. The whole movie feels like a juggernaut of literary pretension and cinematic overreach, run fatally aground.
Contains mature thematic material, disturbing violent content and images, and profanity. 130 minutes.