“The Lovely Bones” is Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the best-selling novel written by Alice Sebold. A 14-year-old girl who was murdered is still spiritually guiding her father from above as he continues to search for his daughter’s killer.
Jackson has become better-known in recent years for his CG extravaganzas like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the most recent “King Kong” but there was a time (in a galaxy far, far away) when Peter Jackson could tell a murder story with the best of them, as he did with “Heavenly Creatures,” Kate Winslet’s film debut (1994).
If “The Lovely Bones” is any indication, that time has passed. Far from agreeing with Sean Patrick, who ended his review by saying “’The Lovely Bones’ is one of the most daring and original works in years and one of the best films of the last year,” I think the film was a semi-disaster, fairly slow-moving, and only good from the standpoint of the acting and the sets. I’m not alone in that assessment, with the objections I had being fairly widespread across the land.
Fortunately, “The Lovely Bones” had a great cast, especially in Saoirse Ronan, who plays the murder victim, Susie Salmon. (Saoirse has already been Oscar-nominated once for her part as the younger sister in “Atonement,” and rightfully so). Saiorse gives another wonderful performance here, as do Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg as her parents, plus a toupeed Stanly Tucci (who also has some sort of fake teeth thing going on) is great as the murderer, George Harvey, the Salmons next-door neighbor who just happens to be a serial killer.
Saiorse has been nominated as Best Actress by the Critics Choice Awards (as was Stanley Tucci for Best Actor); won the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Virtuoso Award, won the Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Performance by a Youth, Female, and won the Las Vegas Film Critics Society Award, the Sierra Award, for Youth in Film (2009). She is very, very good, and I predict that she will do some amazing work in her upcoming films. Tucci, also, is Golden Globe nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role; has been nominated for a Broadcast Film Critics Association Critics Choice Award for 2010 for Best Supporting Actor; was nominated for the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards as Best Supporting Actor of 2009; is nominated for the Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role by the Screen Actors Guild for 2010; and has been nominated by the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association as Best Supporting Actor for 2009. The above means that either or both could be Oscar-nominated for the March 7th Awards show.
As George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) in “The Lovely Bones” says, “I took a risk and tried something new and discovered a talent I didn’t know I had.” Unfortunately, the talent George discovers seems to be killing girls and women, and the string started with his landlady Sophie Sanchetti in 1960 and continued through Jackie Meyer of Delaware, age 13; Leah Fox of Delaware in 1969; Lana Johnson of Bucks County, Pennsylvania; Flora Hernandez of Delaware in 1963; Denise Lee Ang of Connecticut, age 13; and our heroine, Susie Salmon of Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1973.
Let’s start with what’s good about the movie.
The cast is uniformly good…. in some cases (see above) outstanding. There is a minor quibble with the concept of having Susan Sarandon play a boozy Grandma Lynn. Her stint was more appropriate to insertion into the old television series “Malcolm in the Middle.” My husband read the book (I didn’t) and he doesn’t remember the grandmother in the book at all, nor was there so much emphasis on Susie’s status in the “In Between” after her murder (which I will address in a moment). On the positive side, I was struck time and time again by the careful attention to the details of 1973 life that the art/set director displayed. It is true that Susie’s schoolbooks bear the clearly visible legend “Fairfax County Schools” and that the clipping we see later is clearly labeled “Fairfax, Virginia,” while the voice-over tells us that this is Norristown, Pennsylvania, but you’d have to be semi-bored to be noticing these tiny little telling mistakes. Saiorse Ronan is an Oscar waiting to happen. She is luminous. The cinematography is also good, especially the creative scenes shot through the small dollhouse. The symbolic metaphor of ships-in-a-bottle, while useful, was not faithful to the source material and, ultimately, added to the problems that I am going to label “bad.”
In addition to the ships with bottles in them crashing on the shore, and Mark Wahlberg throwing the ships in the bottles to the floor to demonstrate how upset he is, the entire depiction of the strange “in between” world where Susie is now lodged did not fly, with me. Another critic mentioned it as being reminiscent of “What Dreams May Come.” I don’t have problems with using light and fake fog and weird other-worldly visions to illustrate this “in between” world, but maybe it would have been better for all of us if Jackson had stuck to telling the story, itself, without the special effects extravaganza stuff he has become known for in his latest films?
Here’s another “bad” thing. The 14-year-old girl is brutally murdered, (as were the others mentioned above). Her throat is slit. But all the victims turn up almost humming a happy tune like a Manson clan from the sixties or the cast of Big Love, in heaven, where there are lines like, “It’s beautiful, of course. It’s beautiful. It’s heaven. What are you waiting for? You’re free.” (*And, on behalf of “Field of Dreams,” I would like to remind all of you of the line that trumps any here, which is, “It’s not heaven. It’s Iowa.” So, maybe the In-Between is really Iowa? Naaaaah.)
I don’t think that we want to give anyone the incorrect impression that, once you are murdered, it’s all roses and fake fog and bright lines at the end of hallways. Lines like, “I began to see things in a way that let me see the world without me in it…Nobody notices when we leave. At best, we might feel a whisper, or the wave of a whisper undulating down.” cloud the reality of a brutal death. I am certain that Susie Salmon felt a lot more than “a whisper or a wave of a whisper” as she was brutally murdered. (No spoiler there, as it’s a well-known fact that the book is narrated by a girl already dead.)
My husband, who read the book, tells me that this emphasis on the “in between” as a semi- Candyland and the annoying character of Asian Holly Go-Lightly who guides Susie in the In Between (actually a previous victim named Denise Lee Ang), were not in the book. I hope not.
The entire idea of a murdered girl finding happiness after her death (“These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence.”) was, to be honest, off-putting to me as a parent. This film is every parent’s worst nightmare, and it almost seems to be making light of the horrific. Of this year’s films, Jackson’s depiction of limbo, aka the in-between, reminded me most of the Terry Gilliam flop that featured Heath Ledger venturing into a similar fantasyland. (When Ledger died, Jude Law and Johnny Depp filled in for him, creating a very confusing film, indeed, called “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” one of the biggest messes of the year 2009.)
The other issue that divided critics across the land was the idea that Susie feels worst about her unfulfilled teenage yearnings for Ray Singh (Reese Ritchie), who was about to give her her first kiss. There are better reasons to stay alive than to be kissed. Staying alive is reason enough to stay alive, she said redundantly, echoing the song title.
The film was slow moving, rousing itself (again, after the initial murder takes place) only during the scenes when the younger sister, well played by Rose McIver, breaks into the neighbor’s house to search for clues to her sister’s murder. As always happens when there is someone in a vacant house looking for the piece of evidence that will nail the suspect, the homeowner returns and peril threatens. That part, however, was far too short. Also, the way Lindsey, the younger sister, reveals what she has found upon her return home was ridiculous. Any kid I know, possessing this kind of dynamite information, would enter his or her house yelling at the top of his or her lungs, but Lindsey is quite restrained…restrained enough, in fact, to allow the neighbor to slip through the grasp of the authorities. (My kids spent the first ten years of their lives standing on the end of diving boards screeching: “MOM! MOM! LOOK AT ME!” That’s why I can’t believe that Lindsey in the film waits so patiently and in such an unhurried manner to reveal what she has found. So much for Dad’s years spent ferreting out the truth, which includes a near-arrest and a near-fatal beating. When you DO find out the truth, you hold on to the evidence so long that the suspect gets away? [As the British would say, “Not bloody likely.”]
To conclude: slow-moving, artsy, good acting, great sets and period furniture and costumes and posters, wonderful acting turns from Saioren Ronan and Stanley Tucci. A good rental, but not worth the price of admission at the theater.
And somebody urge Peter Jackson to return to his hard-edged telling of a murder, as related in the 1994 film “Heavenly Creatures.” Lose the fog. Lose the light effects. Forget about the miraculous leafy tree and the gazebo. Just the facts, Peter, just the facts.